No Time For South Africa to Relax After A Glorious 2008

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No Time For South Africa to Relax After A Glorious 2008

For South African Cricket, 2008 arguably, represented the most glorious in its history.

After all, the Proteas drew, nearly won, a Test series in India before going on to secure series wins in England and most notably of all in Australia.

Results were such that the retirement of one Shaun Pollock passed almost disrespectfully unnoticed and a world record breaking opening partnership of 415 between Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie was just about forgotten by the time the furore of a series win in Australia had died down.

The year 2007 hadn't ended so well with the West Indies winning the Boxing Day Test by 128 runs, but the New Year brought a new focus and the Proteas hit the ground running.

Consecutive and comprehensive victories were secured to take the three Test series against the West Indies 2-1. There were, however, many questions hanging over the team with serious challenges in India, England and Australia are lying ahead.

Neil McKenzie was brought in as a make shift opener after Herschelle Gibbs form had faltered, Hashim Amla was far from a fixture in the side with the bulk of his runs coming against weaker test opponents, AB devilries shots often undermined his undoubted ability giving the batting line up an air of fallibility.

With Mark Boucher coming in at seven, the tail well and truly started at eight with Paul Harris and Morne Morkel, who was still vying with Andre Nel for his place in the team.

Dale Steyn had burst on to the scene in sensational style but had still to prove himself against the world's best, questions were starting to surface regarding the form of Makhaya Ntini.

Paul Harris' off spin was functional, but not considered a threat and the standard of his fielding was a cause for slight concern. There was a long way to go for this team and searching questions would be asked of them through the course of the year with each new series offering differing and unique challenges.

Indeed, following the series win over the West Indies, there were to be only two more Tests hosted in South Africa in 2008, against Bangladesh in November.

Having overcome the West Indies, the South Africans traveled to Bangladesh securing a 2-0 series win, although they suffered a first inning deficit in the first Test having being bowled out for 170.

They went on to win the first Test by five Wickets, and Neil McKenzie and Graeme Smith's record breaking partnership in the second Test set up the foundation for a rout, the final winning margin being an innings and 205 runs.

Despite the comfortable nature of the win, some doubts were not going to be cast asunder by a series win in Bangladesh.

The next tour was in India wherethe team selection was shrouded in controversy surrounding quotas.

Andre Nel was axed to accommodate Charl Langeveldt who subsequently withdrew from the squad in protest and Monde Zondeki was recalled.

The first Test in Chenai ended in an incipid draw with neither set of bowlers able to make an impact. Hashim Amla hit a classy 150, which was eclipsed by Viru Sewags' 319 as both teams posted first innings scores in excess of 500.

Dale Steyn set up a win for South Africa in the second Test, as his five for 23 was instrumental in overcoming the Indians for 76 in the first Innings.

South Africa batted soundly again and an innings and 90 runs secured the match.

The third test was played on a pitch on which my Granny could have got the ball to turn and Harbhajan Singh took full advantage probably being the pick of the spinners on display.

He took seven wickets in the match and his four wickets in the second Innings played a large hand in South Africa being dismissed for 121 and India eventually winning by eight wickets.

A 1-1 series draw in India and the South Africans had lauded their first indications of what this team was capable of doing.

South Africa arrived in England and was caught cold in the first Test—they were in deep trouble by the close of the second day.

South Africa had to bat for over two days to save the match, a feat they duly managed with such ease as to prompt the poison pens of the English media to whirl in to action.

Engand's failure to win the first Test seemed to drain their confidence and that, allied with some unfathomable player selection, allowed South Africa to take control of and win the second Test.

A fit-again Andrew Flintoff was recalled for the third Test which was a tantalizingly close affair which South Africa won on the back of the batting heroics of Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher.

England had lost back-to-back Test matches and subsequently lost their captain; Michael Vaughan resigned the following day.

Vaughan became the second England Captain to resign during a series against a Greame Smith led South Africa, Nasser Hussain being the first.

Revenge was sweet for Greame Smith and his team who had waited patiently to repay England for their 2-1 series wins in South Africa in 2005.

England won the last Test and trounced South Africa in the subsequent One Day series, 4-0, and South Africa were left thankful that the traditional weather in Old Blighty washed out the final ODI preventing a 5-0 Whitewash.

None of this could diminish the shine of a Test series win in England.

2008 was already becoming a great success and the doubts of the years start were receding and being replaced by visible confidence and self-belief.

An ODI series was won in Kenya and Bangladesh were swept aside in November before the team set off to Australia.

Even in the eyes of the neutral, this three match series was a mouth-watering prospect. India had bloodied Australia's noses with a comfortable 2-0 home series win.

The Aussies responded with a series win over New Zealand and would have been optimistic about playing a team who had suffered ritual torment at Australian hands in recent times, particularly the hands of Messer’s, Warne and McGrath.

Those Aussie superstars were missing, retired, but Australia could be forgiven for assuming that mental scars would still dog and hinder the South Africans.

The Test matches were a joy to behold; the early sessions saw the initiative swing from team to team by the hour. No sign of any mental deficiencies in the South Africans and Australia could again be forgiven for feeling comfortable when they gained the first Test initiative and set South Africa 414 to win.

South Africa won by six wickets with AB De Villiers starring and the spin of Paul Harris was also looking more of a genuine weapon now than a tactic to tie up an end.

A sensational 166 by JP Duminy wrested the imitative away from Australia in the second Test and South Africa marched to an impressive nine-wicket victory.

With Steyn predominant in the wicket taking stakes and Morne Morkel looking a real threat also, backed up by Kallis, Ntini and the new menace of Paul Harris, South Africa had the bowling attack to take advantage of the prodigious runs scored by the batting unit.

Australia had been beaten on home soil, fair and square, for the first time in 16-years. The only choking in the South African camp this time was on the bubbles of hastily drinking celebratory Champagne.

In spite of Captain Corageous, Greame Smith, batting within 10-minutes of the close of the match with a broken hand, Australia won the third Test.

The result was significant as it preserved their status at the top of the ICC World Test rankings, but their status looks more and more perilous as the Proteas and India are hastily closing the gap.

South Africa did manage to steal Australia’s position in the One Day rankings by winning the ODI series 4-1 and with Australia only drawing a subsequent series with New Zealand 2-2, they were unable to reclaim their crown.

So, where now?

2009 is going to be no easier for South Africa.

They host the, quite literally, wounded Wallabies for three Tests, two Twenty-Twenty jamborees and five One Day clashes.

Australia still posses "Champion" cricket players and South Africa will do well to avoid resting on their laurels. Even with an injury stricken squad, the Aussies will provide a stern test for the South Africans, albeit in their own back yard.

Once done with the Aussies, the South Africans must wait until the end of the year to entertain a touring England team, Pieterson and Flintoff et al.

Be fooled not, 51 All Out aside, if England win the Ashes, mumbo jumbo surrounding internal divisions within the squad will disappear and they will march in to South Africa making their own claims that they are the world's number one team.

It makes for "must see" viewing and surely by the end of 2009, we'll all have a clearer idea of who is the premier Test team in world cricket ... or will we?

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