What is South Africa’s best ever Test XI?

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Our podcast’s quest to find the best Test Xis for each nation has moved to look at the Proteas of South Africa.

The third oldest Test nation, South Africa’s Test history goes all the way back to 1889 when it hosted English Xis though it wasn’t until 1906 when it formed the International Cricket Conference with Australia and England that it officially became a fully-fledged Test Cricket nation.

Initially South Africa struggled to match the class of Australia and England, however once they achieved Test status in 1906 they responded with not only their first Test victory after 17 years but a resounding 4-1 series victory at home against England.

In stark contrast to what we know of South Africa today, a country known for producing some very fine fast bowlers, players like Allan Donald, Dale Steyn, Makhaya N’tini and a host of others, the early South African side utilized arguably the best spin attack the world has produced.

Their spin attack were the first to truly weaponise the ‘googly’.

Led by Reggie Schwarz, the spin quartet would take South African cricket to new heights a lead to the rise of the first generation of South African allrounders including Aubrey Faulkner, regarded by some as the finest pre 1st World War allrounder.

South African cricket would continue to compete and by the late 1960’s they were challenging to be the best nation in the world. Rounding out the decade with consecutive series victories against Australia, including a 4-0 drubbing in 1969.

It was there however that South Africa’s rise to dominance would be halted and with it the careers of many that seemed destined to sit among the Pantheon of cricket’s legends.

The South African government’s apartheid policies had left their sporting sides in an untenable position with many global sporting bodies banning the nation from participating and the ICC was no different.

South Africa would go from being on the door step to greatness to not being seen again for 22 long years and a generation of their best and brightest lost.

They would return to Test cricket in 1992 and from that point on South Africa has continued to be one of the world’s leading Test nations, reaching the number one ranking a number of times during the late 2000s and early 2010s.

Even with their absence South Africa has enjoyed a vibrant, successful Test career, they have won 174 of their 452 tests with 124 draws.

They have produced a number of amazing cricketers, a long, distinguished line of fast bowlers along with a number of elegant batsman who can score runs with the best of them.

Their history is littered with fantastic all-rounders so if nothing else we can be sure that South Africa can produce prolifically talented players.

Finding the best team from such a rich history was never going to be an easy task, especially with some of the greats of the game having their careers pulled out from under them.

So here is our attempt at finding the best South African Test XI;

Barry Richards (Tests: 4, Average: 72.57, HS: 140)
(First Class: 339, Average: 54.74, HS: 356)
Universally considered to be one of South Africa’s finest talents he was one of the players whose career fell victim to the international ban.

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Richards made his debut in the 4-0 drubbing of Australia. While he would play no more Tests he did go on to have a monumental First Class career scoring over 28,000 runs and played in the World Series cricket.

He famously took apart a Western Australian attack featuring Australian Test players Dennis Lillee and Graham McKenzie to the tune of 325 runs in a single day. A ferocious stroke player he scored 9 of his 80 first class hundreds before the players had taken lunch.

Graeme Smith © (Tests: 117, Average: 48.25, HS: 277)
Not only an imperious opening batsman, at 22 years old he was the youngest South African captain and one of the most successful captains of all time leading South Africa to the heights it enjoyed in the late 2000s through to the mid 2010s winning 58 of the 109 games he captained.

A tall, almost mighty cricketer would give everything for his side. Few can forget him coming out to face a rampant Mitchell Johnson with a broken hand to try and save the game for his country. An incredible batting talent in his own right, Smith has been a part of all of South Africa’s 300 run opening partnerships

 

Jacques Kallis (Tests: 166, Average: 55.37, HS: 224)
(Wickets: 292, Average: 32.65)
Right up there in the echelons of Sir Garfield Sobers, Jacques Kallis is one of the finest cricketers to have ever lived. So far, he is the only South African to crack the 10,000 Test runs barrier. He is the only player to do the 10,000 run and 250 wicket double in Tests and ODIs.

Often beleaguered for an apparent inability to take the game away from bowlers, what he lacks in flair he makes up for in droves in grit and determination to protect his wicket and grind bowlers down. He has the 2nd most Test hundreds with 45 and holds the record for most Test Man of the Match awards with 23.

Graeme Pollock (Tests: 23, Average: 60.97, HS: 274)
(First Class: 262, Average: 54.67)
The 2nd of our players with limited Test experience that was selected on ‘what could have been.’ With an impressive first class career and an average of 65 in the 16 ‘rebel’ Tests he played during South Africa’s absence there is enough to suggest that he would have been one of the very best.

A tall, strong man with a heavy bat and a fantastic cover drive Pollock would go on to set records in his very short career. He was the youngest South African centurion and his 274 against the Australian’s in 1969 was South Africa’s highest test score until 1999.

His career average of 60.97 is the third highest out of players that have finished their careers.

South African batsman Graeme Pollock

South African batsman Graeme Pollock. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

AB DeVilliers (Tests: 114, Average: 50.66, HS: 278*)
One of the most talented, adaptable batsmen that has ever played. DeVilliers seemingly has all aspects of the batting spectrum covered.

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Has a 162 of 66 balls in ODI cricket but also has the ability to seamlessly switch gears and can bat for 220 balls for 33 to try and save a game. A technique that allows him to access all parts of the ground and complimented his batting with being one of the finest fielders and even had a successful stint as the wicket keeper.

His faultless 91 out of a total of 206 against Australia with Mitchell Johnson at his destructive best in 2014 will forever be one of the more underrated innings from a batsman.

Quinton de Kock (wk) (Tests: 54, Average: 38.82, HS: 141*)
Probably our most controversial selection, de Kock makes the side due to his ability to bat in the top 6 and allow us to pick two allrounders later on in the order.

Though his selection isn’t completely without merit. Already a very good batsman his keeping is still very good, if he played as many games as Boucher he would comfortably have more dismissals than Boucher. He broke the record for fastest keeper to 150 and 200 dismissals taking just 47 games to reach the 200 mark.

Retiring from Test cricket at the age of 29 he joins a long list of South African cricketers that never fully realised their potential.

Quinton de Kock

(Photo by Christiaan Kotze / AFP via Getty Images)

Mike Proctor (Tests:7, Average: 25.11, HS: 48, Wickets 41, Average 15.02)
(First Class: 401, Average: 36.01, HS: 254, Wickets: 1417, Average 19.53)
Our 3rd cricketer to make the list despite missing his career due to the international ban. All of his 7 matches were against Australia who were considered the best in the world at that point. He has played World Series Cricket and has a staggering First Class career.

His exploits over a 13-year career for Gloucestershire had many jokingly rename the county to ‘Proctershire.’ He had an unusual chest on bowling action that could generate unplayable levels of in swing, his batting was built off of a sound defence and strong strokeplay. His 48 first class hundred and 109 fifties indicate he would have fitted in right away into the test arena.

Shaun Pollock (Tests: 108, Average 32.31, HS: 111, Wickets: 421, Average: 23.11)
Another in what seems to be a factory production line of talented allrounders to come out of South Africa. Borderline South African cricket royalty with his father, Peter and uncle Graeme also being members of the Proteas.

Statistically one of the finest fast bowlers of all time and is one of only six players to score more than 3000 runs and take 300 wickets. When he retired he was South Africa’s leading wicket taker before Dale Steyn took the record in 2018.

South African batsman Shaun Pollock in 2007.

South Africa’s Shaun Pollock (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

Dale Steyn (Tests: 93, Wickets: 439, Average: 22.95)
The finest bowler of his generation and very much in the discussion for making an All Time World XI as one of the quicks. Had all the skills to be an elite fast bowler, could swing the ball, seam the ball, a fantastic bouncer and the ability to always find an extra gear when he needed too.

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His brilliance can be shown be the fact he has the most wickets by any foreign pace bowler in the subcontinent with 92 at an average of 24, his best figures of 7/51 were in Nagpur and his strike rate of 37 in India is best for any fast bowler that has taken 20 plus wickets.

He dominated the number 1 bowler rankings spot for much of his career, his reign at the top is almost a year longer than Muralitharan who holds the 2nd longest stint at the top.

Hugh Tayfield (Tests: 37, Wickets:170, Average: 25.91)
Unlike the earlier pioneers of South African spin bowling, Tayfield was an off spinner and one of the finest ever produced taking over 4.5 wickets per game. Debuting in 1949, he was the fastest South African to 100 wickets until 2008 when Dale Steyn broke the mark.

He became the mainstay in the side during the 1952/52 tour of Australia where he was instrumental in their first victory over Australia in 42 years. He was also taking an immense 864 first class wickets at 21.

Allan Donald (Tests: 72, Wickets: 330, Average: 22.25)
Dubbed ‘White Lightning’ Donald played their first test after the ban and went on to become the main strike weapon of the side partnering with Shaun Pollock with the new ball. His career strike rate is 47 and his mastery with the ball gave South Africa some much needed punch in their quest to reach the top after readmittance.

His record stacks up with the very best of all time. Of all the bowlers to have taken more wickets than him only three have done so with a better average, McGrath, Ambrose and Marshall.

12th Man
Hashim Amla (Tests: 124, Average 46.64, HS: 311*)
One of South Africa’s most prolific batsman, just shy of 10,000 test match runs to his name and current holder of the highest individual test score by a South African.

Not an instant success after an underwhelming start he refashioned his technique and returned armed with his signature flick of the pads and sublime drive through the covers and become one of the cornerstones of the highly successful South African side of the late 2000s.

Honourable Mentions
Makhaya Ntini, Dudley Nourse, Aubrey Faulkner, Mark Boucher, Vernon Philander

South Africa is a nation with a long history in cricket and not all of it is good. But one thing for certain is that there is no shortage of talent and now that horrible political policies have been swept away and the entire country is now welcome to represent their country it has opened the door for so many more to become fantastic cricketers and I’m sure if we did this list again in 20 years there would be many incredible players to add to this list.

Rightly or wrongly they carry around the ‘chokers’ label after failing on the biggest stage of the World Cup, but it is a credit to them that they have put themselves into a position where the ultimate success is not only within reach but often expected. It is clear that a selection of South Africa’s best would put any team on notice.



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