The Proteas are in the midst of a rare, fairly pronounced off-season as far as the five-day format is concerned, especially as the initially-scheduled Test portion of their recent, mostly unsatisfactory limited-overs tour of Sri Lanka was pushed out by a couple of years.
So at least in the minds of some neutral observers, it is inevitable that thoughts may be turning to the possibility that Alastair Cook’s English outfit, who have gone an imperious three-nil up in the five-Test home series against the old enemy from Down Under with one to play, are back on an upward march to recapture the ICC Test mace from South Africa.
But at least statistically, such an event remains a long way down the road – the Proteas’ lead in rating points is such that they are safe at the helm in the short- to medium-term.
Although the points situation will only be revised after completion of the Ashes later this month (England must be considered strong favourites to complete a 4-0 outcome) South Africa stand on 135 points, a whole 19 clear of India in second (116) and 23 superior to England (112) in third.
There is a case for saying, however, that India’s occupation of second has a slightly hollow ring to it because England have seen them off both home and away in most recent tussles between those two.
England are certainly the form team of currently active Test nations, given that their thrilling triumph in the fourth Ashes Test at Chester-le-Street on Monday stretched their unbeaten run in the format to 12 games.
But even a substantial English lobby agrees that Cook’s team are showing more imperfections in their play than they were some two years ago, ahead of the Proteas’ 2-0 conquest of their shores in 2012 which not only saw the mace change hands but also gave South Africa a massively healthy pile of ratings points because of the strength-versus-strength weight of the away triumph.
Just one critic who subscribes to that theory is regular, astute www.espncricinfo.com columnist Rob Smyth, who made the point on Wednesday: “Regaining the mace seems unlikely in the medium term – even if England win the back-to-back Ashes 9-0 (the best possible outcome from where the current series stands – Sport24) they will still not do so.
“They are almost in limbo between South Africa and the rest of the world: the Test rankings say they are third behind India, but having beaten them 6-1 home and away it is understandable why many regard England as superior.
“(But) what is not in doubt is that South Africa are now in a different post code to England ... a year on (from winning in England) the Proteas deservedly strut around with the conviction of a team who are the world’s best, and who have sustained greatness in their grasp.
“England have recovered admirably after a horrible period in 2012, winning in India and going 12 Test unbeaten, but they are still nowhere near the level of performance they managed in 2010-11.”
Smyth feels their bowling has “generally been on a more even keel” but cites frailty at the crease as a key reason.
“England’s decline has largely been in their batting – not just the volume of runs but, crucially, the speed at which they score them.
“Strike rate is a decent window into the soul of a team: in 2011 England averaged 59.16 runs per wicket and scored at 3.81 runs per over ... in 2013 those figures are 32.87 and 2.84, a startling drop of one run per over.”
Despite their dormancy at present, South Africa also still eclipse England for standout personnel on the individual ICC rankings for Test batsmen and bowlers.
Hashim Amla tops the batting pile, with AB de Villiers in third and veteran Jacques Kallis in eighth; England’s best performer is the in-form Ian Bell (centuries in three of the four home Ashes Tests thus far) in seventh.
On the bowling front, meanwhile, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander hog positions one and two in the world, with England’s best representative in the top 10 Graeme Swann in sixth.
Although each nation has a few important series to contemplate in the interim period, South Africa do not lock horns in Tests again with England until the home summer of 2015/16.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing