South Africa's Return to Top of Test Rankings Was Cricket at Its Gripping Best

Antoinette MullerFeatured ColumnistJuly 28, 2014

South African cricket team members pose a group photography with the trophy after  their second test cricket match against Sri Lanka was drawn in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, July 28, 2014. South Africa won the two-test series 1-0:  (AP Photo/Sanka Gayashan)
Sanka Gayashan/Associated Press

When Gary Kirsten was in charge of the South African team, he used to talk about “absorbing and transferring pressure.”

He’d use these buzzwords whenever South Africa were in a spot of bother. Whether that was after a bad day in the field or in real tough times like during their tour of Australia back in 2012. Kirsten is no longer coach, but he was with the team for the second Test match against Sri Lanka, and there is no doubt that he would have been talking about absorbing and transferring pressure.

South Africa did just that on day five in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and they came out on top of the world in the end. Although the Test ended a draw, the series win was enough for South Africa to regain the No. 1 ranking in Test cricket.

South Africa draw Test, jump2 number 1 #SriLanka #SouthAfrica http://t.co/ZLZ8X3jFn8 pic.twitter.com/oPfRBtUmCv

— NewsWall SouthAfrica (@NewsWallCoZa) July 28, 2014

That ranking was taken away from them earlier in the year, without any team actually bowling a ball. Australia toppled them from their perch, and whether that was deserved is still up for debate. What cannot be disputed is that South Africa are the indisputable No. 1 team right now.

They have not lost a Test series away from home since 2006.

They have lost just eight Tests out of 42 since the start of 2009 and lost just one series in that time period.

They have had their backs against the wall and they have bounced back from that time and time again.

They have won in Sri Lanka having lost both Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis.

No ordinary team can achieve such things. This South African team, although not without its faults, is extraordinary, almost as extraordinary as the Test they just completed.

The tense nature of the match ensured that it was enchanting, even when nothing was happening. For what seemed like an endless amount of time, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers knuckled down and batted for very few runs. 

From the 34th over, the run rate never edged above 2.00 as Sri Lanka’s spinners stymied the scoring and turned the screws.

The wickets fell, here and there, and the Test became pregnant with expectation.

Depending on which side of the fence you were on, that expectation ranged either from Sri Lanka’s spinners doing the job or South Africa’s batsmen proving their mettle.

It was the kind of Test that forced you to stay glued to your seat, just in case you might miss the one key event that so rarely appeared. The batsmen had the formula all figured out: block, block, block, unplayable ball, block, block.

The bowling rarely deviated from that formula, and South Africa guarded their wickets like they were solid gold. Sri Lanka’s spinners tried tirelessly to prise that gold from their grasp.

For lovers of the longest format of the game, it was a Test match to remember with tension that made your skin crawl and excitement over nothing actually happening. As the clock continued to tick over and the overs began to run out, Amla admitted that the nerves were shattered in the dressing room and fingernails were being bitten to smithereens. 

Imran Tahir being helped from the ground after his heroic cramping helped South Africa regain the #1 Test ranking pic.twitter.com/YlqOiTzoTV

— Dennis Does Cricket (@FreedmanDennis) July 28, 2014

By the time there was just one over left, South Africa’s Imran Tahir was apparently so tense that he pulled up with a cramp and required the physio. He survived—both the cramp and the final over—and South Africa had yet another notch in their ever-bulging belt.

Their rearguard and character is something that is becoming the hallmark of this team, and it’s something that will be remembered for years to come.

Quotes obtained firsthand and statistics from ESPNCricinfo.