Cape Town - While there’s no harm in a bit of hype - Test cricket needs all it can get in that regard – the South Africa v Australia series from February will have only a limited effect at this stage on the balance of global power.
Australians love winners and, particularly after a traumatic and reasonably well-developed “doldrums” period for them, are beyond themselves with excitement, generally speaking, over the 5-0 home Ashes crushing of England.
It has inevitably led to some gung-ho suggestions Down Under that they are now set for a not dissimilar plundering mission in South Africa between February and March, which will effectively confirm their restoration as heads of the global pecking order in some deluded minds.
Let’s confess this much from where we stand: a really rousing triumph by the Baggy Greens in the three-Test series (say by a 2-0 or even less likely 3-0 margin?) would be another pretty massive statement that “the Aussies are back”.
But it would be deeply mischievous, even in the event of Graeme Smith’s charges – who have hogged the ICC Test mace ever since they beat England 2-0 away in mid-2012 – being eclipsed on home turf shortly to assume Australia would effectively be rulers of the planet once more.
Quite rightly, the official rankings, which all Test nations buy into, will still have the Proteas in front, regardless of which way the keenly-awaited clash in the next few weeks goes.
They are a vast 16 rating points ahead of No 2-ranked India, who they have just beaten 1-0 in a short series, and as many as 22 ahead of the third-placed Australians.
In short, the situation is South Africa’s reward for a protracted period of dominance and carefully-weighted value given not only to series triumphs, but also gritty avoidance of defeats, especially in known hostile or unfavourable climates abroad.
There has simply not been enough consistent volume of excellence from any of the Proteas’ nearest and most serious challengers – India, Australia and now fourth-placed England – to threaten South Africa’s supremacy for the foreseeable future.
Indeed, there is a perfectly credible case for suggesting a home loss to the Aussies need not be viewed as much more than an allowable hiccup at this juncture; a temporary giant-killing.
It needs to be kept in mind that Australia have lost both of their two most recent home series against the Proteas, and that South Africa have not been beaten by anyone at all in 15 series – that was the 2-1 reverse to those foes in 2008/09, straight after a drought-breaking SA win by the same margin Down Under in the same summer.
Still more tellingly, the Proteas last surrendered an away series a whole 26 series ago, when Sri Lanka (a bit of a nemesis away, it is true) won 2-0 in 2006.
Their record for several years now has just been so obviously more stable than that of anyone around them.
India, for example, apart from the very recent setback in South Africa, lost 2-1 at home to England in 2012/13, and by the violent margins of 4-0 away to both the Aussies in 2011/12 and England in the 2011 northern hemisphere summer.
Australia, meanwhile, should not forget the 3-0 away loss in the first of the recent back-to-back Ashes series, even if it was argued at the time that the margin flattered England a bit.
It is also not that long ago that they were clean-swept 4-0 on Indian dustbowls (three series back for them).
As for England, their behaviour of late has been the most schizophrenic of all the main trio of challengers to Smith’s troops, because any 5-0 thumping is a hideous outcome if you believe you can aspire to global domination.
Just about the only reason to suggest South Africa might be in line for some sort of “correction” to their supremacy is the retirement of all-round giant Jacques Kallis and the obvious degree of upheaval and angst it will cause for a while (you can’t really throw in the argument about the Proteas not possessing a truly terrifying spinner because they have managed largely fine without one for years).
India? The recent series in South Africa probably only confirmed that for all the rise of a new breed of stroke-players, their seam attack isn’t and won’t be too scary on tracks where a bit of bend-the-back industry is required.
The Aussies, by contrast, are assembling a threatening arsenal of quick bowlers once more – especially if they can keep most of them properly fit; certainly no guarantee – but it is very premature to suggest their batting is rebuilding to match the brutal efficiency of Border, Taylor, Waugh and to some extent Ponting eras.
Their main bastion of reliability at the crease in the latest Ashes series, never forget, was their veteran wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, around the No 7 berth!
As for England, they have lost the plot for the moment, rocked by retirements or personal crises for core personnel and with the country seemingly divided over whether ace batsman Kevin Pietersen must stay part of the furniture or be considered a bad egg in terms of squad morale and thus be ditched.
It could be a good while before England re-emerge as legitimate challengers for No 1.
Following the Australian series, and whatever outcome that produces, South Africa have a lean and low-calibre schedule of Test opponents as things stand, which is a great shame but also perversely beneficial because it should make it even more difficult in the medium term for the mace to be taken away from their grip.
Before the 2015 World Cup in Australasia, the Proteas are only due to play freshly crisis-torn minnows and neighbours Zimbabwe away, and then a humdrum three-Test home series against West Indies – just off 2-0 defeats in India and New Zealand and showing absolutely no signs of revisiting the Caribbean magnificence and swagger of the 1970s and 1980s.
It’s a pretty clear passage for South Africa ... and psst, just imagine how much they’ll actually tighten their merciless hold if they beat Australia?
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