In the first instalment of a three-part series, SA Cricket magazine’s writers pick their best post-isolation Proteas Test XI.
JON CARDINELLI: How can one look past Graeme Smith as the best South African Test captain and opening batsman of the post-isolation era? While his win record and batting stats are enough to warrant his inclusion here, they don’t quite tell the story of his ability to overcome the odds and play his team out of difficult situations. Herschelle Gibbs was a free-spirited player, and complemented Smith best at the top of the South African order. Some may point to a Test average of 41.95 and suggest that one of the Proteas’ most gifted players failed to do justice to his talents. When Gibbs got going, however, he had the ability to destroy opposition bowling lineups.
Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis are the two most important Test batsmen to have played for South Africa during this period. Both had the patience to complement their technique, and currently rank second and first on the Proteas’ all-time run-scorers list. It speaks volumes for Kallis’ consistency, of course, that he finished his career with nearly 4,000 runs and 17 more Test hundreds than Amla. As one of South Africa’s top wicket-takers, Kallis will also go down in history as one of the finest all-rounders to have played the game.
AB de Villiers is the only other batsman on this list with an average greater than 50. One wonders where he would have finished up if he – like Kallis – had gone on to play more than 150 Tests. De Villiers had the technique, the patience and the desire to innovate and dominate. De Villiers often ensured that the Proteas posted a big total that heaped pressure on the opposition.
The toughest call for me was at No 6. Darryl Cullinan was a world-class batsman for South Africa during a time when the side was comprised largely of battlers. I was tempted to include another warrior in Faf du Plessis – who has featured in many Proteas wins over the past eight years or so. In the end I opted for Cullinan, whose record score of 275 not out against New Zealand stood for 11 years until De Villiers cracked 278 not out against Pakistan in 2010. Amla, of course, surpassed De Villiers when he scored 311 not out against England in 2012.
WADE PRETORIUS: You’d think this would be harder than it sounds – to select just six batsmen from a country that has bobbed around the top of the pile since readmission. But no one would leave out Graeme Smith with all of his 9,200-plus runs at an average of a little over 48. Throw in his leadership and slip catching and you have a certainty.
In this side, I’m not asking Herschelle Gibbs to open. I know I’m foregoing the left-right combination that so often troubles bowlers but, instead, I’m putting Gary Kirsten at the top. He ended his career with 21 hundreds and a fine reputation; it’s no wonder he’s gone on to be one of the most sought-after coaches in the game.
Hashim Amla arrives at first wicket, whenever that might be in this side. The first South African to score a triple century in Test cricket, Amla was as good through the covers as he was flicking anything away on his legs.
At No 4 is the side’s kingpin, Jacques Kallis … the best to have played the game and adds an all-rounder to the team. 45 hundreds and the most runs by a South African, there’s no doubting his world-class status.
AB de Villiers bats at five and would be given license to play his natural game. A fine stroke-maker, his career will go down as a great but purists believe he should’ve doubled his hundreds tally … he ended on 22 but fourth on the all-time runs list.
Rounding out my top six would be Herschelle Gibbs. I was tempted to draft in Ashwell Prince but Gibbs’ attacking mindset and ability to pick apart any attack nailed down his place. A batsman as good as any when in the mood, imagine Gibbs coming in at 300-4?
CRAIG LEWIS: In terms of a complementary opening-batting partnership, it probably wouldn’t make perfect sense to pair two gritty left-handers like Graeme Smith and Gary Kirsten together. But you also simply can’t look past picking each of them on their own merit, with both boasting averages of over 45 at the top of the order (and having played over 100-plus Tests).
Legendary Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis are shoo-ins to walk to the crease after the fall of a wicket or two – and the same can be said for AB de Villiers, who is my other obvious pick at No 5.
There is a part of me that wishes I could make space for Darryl Cullinan next, but I’m opting for another explosive batsman in Quinton de Kock, who is already one of my all-time favourite cricketers from a pure raw talent point of view.
JONHENRY WILSON: There’s little to no questioning Smith, Amla, Kallis, De Villiers and Cullinan in Cardinelli’s hypothetical XI, but worth replacing Gibbs with Gary Kirsten. Conservative Kirsten played more, scored more and proved more consistently than the maverick Gibbs. You’d have the former bat for your life, not the latter.
The battle-hardened left-hander epitomised South Africa’s collective steel for several years. The 210 he scored against England in Manchester in 1998 and the 150 versus the Aussies four years later in Sydney are particular favourites.
ANDRE HUISAMEN: It’s a no-brainer in terms of Graeme Smith right at the top of my XI, as well as captain of the team. Growing up, Smith was one of my real heroes to put his hand up and fight against adversity directed towards him. As I remember those early days, it’s only fitting to partner him with Herschelle Gibbs due to the great understanding and bond between the duo. Although Gibbs might not have been the traditional opening Test batsman, he certainly didn’t shy away from the attack and complemented Smith’s more conservative approach brilliantly.
Hashim Amla is my No 3. His record in this format is spectacular and there are numerous examples of where he carried the team with his bat. In his prime he made scoring centuries, even double tons, look easy and who will ever forget his unbeaten 311 at the Oval in 2012.
No Test team can be selected without Jacques Kallis and for the Proteas it goes without saying. The greatest all-rounder of our generation and probably South Africa’s greatest cricketer ever. A void has been felt in the Proteas team ever since he retired in 2013.
AB de Villiers‘ versatility and explosive batting also earn him a definite spot in the team. AB was a key unit down the order during South Africa’s dominance of Test cricket. He offered a very handy batting option and was quick to take the game away from opposition teams by being aggressive at a later stage.
Haven given a lot of thought to this No 6 spot, I feel it’s fitting to select Hansie Cronje for my Test XI. Controversy and shame aside, Cronje’s talent and leadership in our Test team back in the 90s was terrific. His all-round ability to chip in with both bat and ball made him a real competitor.
GARY LEMKE: Daryll Cullinan could have been one of the greats; he broke Graeme Pollock’s record as South Africa’s youngest First-Class centurion at 16, scored 337 against Northern Transvaal, broke another Pollock Test record with an unbeaten 275 against New Zealand – and averaged 44.32 from 70 Tests.
But, against Australia he averaged 12.75 in 13 innings. In his last Test innings against the Aussies he was bowled for a duck by Shane Warne, and Cullinan became remembered more for being Warne’s bunny than for the brilliance of his batting. His troubles against Australia – and Warne – apart, he hit eye-candy hundreds against England, India, NZ, Sri Lanka and West Indies. He often let himself down, but in a calm dressing room and with this ‘fantasy’ top order around him he would have been right at home.
Therefore, in choosing a ‘Dream XI’, starting with the batting, does one gloss over the realities? For instance, if this Dream XI came up against those Australian bowlers that Cullinan faced between 1993 and 1997, he wouldn’t make my side. But, if it is purely to acknowledge talent and ability, he does.
I too would open with Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs, a left-and-right-hander combination providing perfect foils for one another’s game. One who can get you a grafting hundred in a day, the other who would have got to 200 in the same time had he had the patience.
Nos 3 and 4 are nailed down: Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis are two greats of the modern game. When they went out to bat the tailenders could leave the ground and go shopping for the day; they would make most World XIs of the modern area, never mind a South African XI.
Which leaves one spot. It has to be AB de Villiers, someone of whom Morne Morkel once told me that ‘when AB starts to go Spiderman in the nets it’s impossible to bowl to him without him dominating you’. So, in batting order, it’s Smith (to face first ball), Gibbs, Amla, Kallis, Cullinan and De Villiers.
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