Cape Town – South Africa may have surrendered their No 1 ranking for the moment, but the best batch of teams in Test cricket ought to trade in a tight range over the next year or so, giving the Proteas hope of a return to supremacy.
It is not as though a single, truly exceptional team exists right now in the manner of the great West Indies outfits of the late 1970s and 1980s or later Australian combinations of, say, the Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh captaincy periods.
The now third-ranked South Africa continue to rebuild after the retirements of various veterans, and a bright immediate future cannot be regarded as certain in the wake of successive series defeats at the hands of India and now England.
But they are also tying up a few loose ends quite nicely, as evidenced in the dead-rubber crushing of the English at SuperSport Park, which featured promising showings from new-cap opening batsman Stephen Cook and continued robust development from young prospects like Kagiso Rabada and Temba Bavuma.
The nucleus of a competitive new unit seems in place, even if there are still some open-ended issues like the fitness of ageing strike bowler Dale Steyn, willingness or otherwise of AB de Villiers to stay involved for some time, and the ongoing problem of getting the team’s balance right for each specific occasion in the absence of a Kallis-type all-rounder.
England certainly appear on the up again, and will rightly be delighted with their 2-1 triumph here, although captain Alastair Cook has admitted they still have instability in their top-order batting.
Although recent results also include winning the last Ashes series (3-2 at home in 2015), England have been patchy in series terms – it was also in 2015 that they could only draw 1-1 in the West Indies, and earn a similar outcome at home to New Zealand.
Before coming to South Africa, they were also comprehensively beaten 2-0 by Pakistan in their adopted United Arab Emirates stronghold.
As for Australia, the Ashes showed up their batting frailty in seaming English conditions, even if they will always be a force to be reckoned with on their own true, firmer tracks.
They are assembling a healthy stock of Test-calibre fast bowlers, and are better at rotating them for the sake of freshness than most other nations even if that policy can also hold certain perils as continuity is affected.
India beat the Proteas on some controversially dusty, minefield home surfaces not too long ago: tracks which will do very little, it must be said, to make them more competitive in the southern hemisphere where their record remains poor.
In their favour, as the current No 1 outfit by a tight margin from both the Aussies and Proteas, is a roster over the next year that won’t scare them too much – visits to Zimbabwe and West Indies won’t daunt them too severely, and they also entertain all of New Zealand, England and Australia in a row.
So I fancy India may be the ones to rule the roost over the course of the next 12 months, primarily on the basis of that kind agenda.
If South Africa are to force themselves back to the front of the pack, it may be necessary for them to win a keynote series Down Under in October and November, when they will probably play four Tests; the itinerary has not yet been confirmed by Cricket Australia.
But it is not as though that would be virgin territory for the Proteas: they have won both of their last two Test series in Oz – 2008/09 and 2012/13.
Here are the Test challenges facing South Africa and their traditional three major rivals up until the end of the 2016/17 season, according to the ICC Future Tours Programme:
South Africa (ranked 3rd)
August: NZ (H, 2 Tests); October: Aus (A, 4 Tests); December: Sri Lanka (H, 3 Tests); February: NZ (A, 3 Tests).
England (ranked 5th)
May: Sri Lanka (H, 3 Tests); July: Pakistan (H, 4 Tests); October: Bangladesh (A, 2 Tests); November: India (A, 5 Tests).
India (ranked 1st)
June: Zimbabwe (A, 1 Test); July: West Indies (A, 4 Tests); August: Bangladesh (H, 1 Test); October: NZ (H, 3 Tests); November: Eng (H, 5 Tests); February: Aus (H, 4 Tests).
Australia (ranked 2nd)
July: Sri Lanka (A, 3 Tests); October: SA (H, 4 Tests); December: Pakistan (H, 3 Tests); February: India (A, 4 Tests).
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