South Africa Aren't Facing End of an Era as Test Cricket's Top Side

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South Africa Aren't Facing End of an Era as Test Cricket's Top Side
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Centurion wasn't pretty from a South African perspective. As poor as Graeme Smith's decision to bowl first in the best overhead conditions of the match, so were the crowds present for the opening days of the anticipated heavyweight contest.

It was as if something was amiss right from the beginning. And it just got worse. And worse. And then even worse.

Dale Steyn was sick. Vernon Philander's bowling looked just as off-colour. Morne Morkel bowled too short, and then shorter again. Robin Peterson got the Graeme Swann treatment.

That was just one ordeal. Three more quickly followed.

Smith hopped and ducked for four balls against Mitchell Johnson and was dismissed by two of them. Hashim Amla took blows on the grill. Faf Du Plessis had some pre-series words shoved down his throat. Ryan McLaren's head sought evasion. So did his bat.

Then catches went down. Balls went through legs. Legs went through balls. The only South African thing at the ground working properly was the scoreboard, and the story it told was startling.

Somehow, a team that couldn't win a game prior to November had suddenly arrived and disposed of the world's best as if they were a cleaning rag for Johnson's growing trophy cabinet.

But eras aren't born by one-Test aberrations, and they're certainly not ended by them. The home side, of course, may well go on to lose this series. At 1-0 down against a rampant Australian outfit, the odds are stacked against them.

Yet, the reality is that even great teams lose games. And series. In modern cricket with packed schedules, consistently evolving squads and endless switching from format to format, losing becomes even easier. This team just loses less than others, so it's surprising when they do.

So, forget the era-ending talk. It's the same sort of short-sighted, 90-minute conclusions that plague football.

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Successful eras are built upon a team's spine. While peripheral players can alter the short-term fortunes of an international outfit, it's the structure of the side's core that dictates extended success. In that regard, South Africa are blessed.

Smith, at 33, still has 18 months to two years of high-quality production left within him. Possibly more. The country's outstanding batsmen, Amla and AB De Villiers, have just hit 30. The team's vaunted pace trio of Steyn, Philander and Morkel are 30, 28 and 29 respectively. 

South Africa aren't going anywhere.

Compare those ages to Australia's spine. Michael Clarke, at 32, is similarly positioned to Smith, but has a chronic back issue. The most reliable batsman among the top three, Chris Rogers, is 36. Ditto for their innings-saving wicket-keeper. And the equally vaunted pace trio of Johnson, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle are 32, 34 and 29. 

They might have copped a hiding at Centurion, but it's not the South Africans that are getting a little long in the tooth. That's Australia, and a rebuilding England.

Yet, the era-ending talk has been accelerated by the departure of Jacques Kallis; the colossal all-rounder somehow representing an era on his own. He doesn't. His career actually spanned several eras, with his retirement occurring in the middle—rather than the end—of the current one.

In fact, for the final 12 months of his career, Kallis's batting average slumped to 25.75. South Africa has essentially been dealing with his departure from this time last year. They're still No. 1, and are by a distance according to the rankings.

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The all-rounder's retirement is, of course, a blow for the Rainbow Nation. Replacing a player of Kallis's qualities is as difficult as stopping your side from being "Johnsoned." But the loss of a single great has rarely ended successful eras on its own.

When Clive Lloyd retired from Test cricket in 1984, the West Indies juggernaut rolled on. When Viv Richards bowed out in 1991, it would be another four years until the Caribbean outfit lost a series. Miles south, Australia's situation post-Steve Waugh was rather similar. 

The point here is that great players who wave goodbye at a time when the side's spine remains intact, rarely bring about the conclusion of an era. It's when multiple greats retire in unison that curtains begin to be drawn.

For examples of that, you could look at England's current situation; the loss of Kevin Pietersen, Graeme Swann and possibility Jonathan Trott, drawing a definitive close on a successful English side. When Australia lost Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn in 2006-07, the end was near.

That's not the case for South Africa. Smith, Amla, De Villiers, Steyn, Philander and Morkel still have plenty of cricket to play alongside one another. 

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Eras of dominance are also ended when rival nations possessing waves of emerging talent begin to rise. Right now, the Proteas don't have an obvious long-term challenger.

Yes, Australia right now are formidable, but Clarke's outfit is one that will need rejuvenation in 18 months' time. Rogers and Haddin will need replacing. Harris, at 34, needs knee surgery. The skipper himself is working on borrowed time with his back. And at 32, Johnson's ability to maintain speeds of 150 km/h will soon decline.

Despite their global might, India aren't ready for dominance at Test level either. A side that hasn't claimed a victory abroad in close to three years isn't about to end South Africa's reign. Taking New Zealand wickets at 123-over intervals suggests much the same. 

As for the others, England have waved goodbye to global success for some time; the nation's sides in every format needing to undergo a period of rebuilding. Pakistan's hopes of challenging for supremacy are even smaller, given that they've won just six of their last 32 Tests against the world's current top three over the past decade.

Going further down, Sri Lanka must prepare to wave goodbye to the nation's only two world-class players in Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, given that both have reached the ripe old age of 36. New Zealand are definitely on an upward trend, but it's hard to envisage a team that plays Tests at university grounds becoming a world power.

As for the West Indies, they might return to the top on the same day that London Underground commuters become a friendly and compassionate bunch. 

The message is clear. South Africa's rivals aren't positioned to end the Proteas' era while the side's spine in still intact. 

So forget the era-ending talk. It's nonsense. South Africa lost a Test match, that's all. Doing that after losing just one of your previous 19 does little to suggest this team's reign is over.

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