It’s approaching 50 years since the maiden ODI was played between Australia and England at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). While T20s are the current darlings of cricket, it was the 50-over format which initially helped raise the popularity and exposure of the sport.
The format gave birth to the ICC World Cup in 1975, a quadrennial competition, which has become the benchmark for greatness in the game. Over the years, there have been several teams to have dazzled with their brilliant performances over both bilateral series and ICC competitions.
In this series, we take a look at eight of the best ODI squads in history. South Africa’s squad during the period between 2007 and 2009 is our focus below.
Openers: Graeme Smith (C), Herschelle Gibbs, Hashim Amla
Middle-order: Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Mark Boucher (WK)
All-rounders: Albie Morkel, Jacques Kallis
Spinners: Johan Botha, Rudolph van der Merwe
Pacers: Makhaya Ntini, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Shaun Pollock, Andre Nel, Charl Langeveldt
While winning the World Cup remains the pinnacle for any ODI side, it isn’t the sole barometer of success. This particular South Africa side helmed by Graeme Smith doesn’t quite get the recognition it deserves due its lack of ICC titles, but the manner in which they constantly challenged the world’s then best team in Australia showed its real calibre.
Just a year before Australia’s World Cup win 2007, this Proteas side created history by pulling off an epic world-record 435-run chase against the would-be champions in Johannesburg. Although they succumbed to the same opponents in the semi-final of the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies, they remained the closest challengers to Australia’s dominance over the course of the next two years.
Since that last-four exit at the World Cup, the South Africans embarked on a sensational run which saw them win 10 out of 12 bilateral and trilateral ODI series. Their only defeats during this streak came overseas against India and England, while the marauding Aussies were turned over twice in succession.
The hallmark of a great team is how they stood up against the very best in the world, and this Proteas unit always fared well on this front. Although the South African curse of slipping up in the big ICC tournaments will continue to haunt them, they will still go down as one of the most entertaining ODI sides in history.
Captain – Graeme Smith
They don’t quite make them like Graeme Smith anymore, with the Johannesburg-born batsman captaining the team at the tender age of 22. Having become the youngest skipper in South Africa history, Smith was tasked with restoring the confidence in a team still reeling from the aftershocks of Hansie Cronje’s match-fixing admission.
Not only did Smith end up rebuilding South Africa’s tarnished reputation, he also turned them into world beaters over the course of a decade long and illustrious captaincy stint. His never-say-die attitude was reflected in the team’s culture, with the side never throwing in the towel no matter what the situation.
Smith walking out to bat with a broken arm in Sydney in a desperate quest to save the Test against Australia in 2009 remains the defining image of his heroic captaincy.
A man who took no prisoners in both the team as well as the management above him, Smith’s record of 53 Test wins as skipper makes him the most successful captain of all time.
He was an accomplished opening batsman in his own right, despite not having the most elegant of techniques. Over 9,000 Test and nearly 7,000 ODI runs are testament to Smith’s profligacy as a batsman. He really was the ‘man of steel’, both with the captaincy and the bat.
With Gibbs and Smith at the very front, South Africa had an opening pair that was second only to India’s Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag between 2007 and 2009.
During South Africa’s incredible run in the aforementioned 12-series streak, Smith and Gibbs combined to score nearly 2,400 runs together. A balanced right and left-handed combination, the duo fed off each other’s strengths brilliantly. While Gibbs was the more enterprising batsman of the pair, Smith was the more consistent foil he needed to go on his attacking spree.
And when Gibbs got in, fireworks were always in store.
Following up the South African openers was a middle-order that was the envy of every side. While it contained some big names like Jacques Kallis, it was AB de Villiers who was the real lynchpin of the batting.
His 1,471 runs during the 12-series run was the most by any batsman in the side, and it came with the help of two tons and 10 fifties. Meanwhile, Kallis was the ever-reliable rock at No3 around whom South Africa built their innings. Averaging a sound 45 during the period in question, the right-hander doubled up as a handy all-rounder with his medium-fast bowling.
Below them, JP Duminy was a resourceful batsman in the middle-order who averaged a respectable 40 between 2007 and 2009.
In Mark Boucher, South Africa possessed a wicketkeeper who could also bat well down the order. A gifted gloveman who holds the record for the most wicketkeeping dismissals in history, Boucher was a batsman who could come in and score a quick-fire 30 or 40 in the death overs.
The perfect candidate to close out the innings with the big hits, Boucher played his part in closing out several stiff run-chases for the South Africans.
While Johan Botha was a more than capable limited-overs spinner, South Africa’s strength in the bowling attack undoubtedly lied in its pace unit. A fully fit and firing Dale Steyn was the chief reason for their pace dominance, with the tearaway quick averaging 26.60 during the period in question.
The Morkel siblings Morne and Albie were a decent supplement to Steyn’s prowess, while veteran Makhaya Ntini was still a force to be reckoned with despite being on the last legs of his career.
That Kallis could also provide 10 overs of his medium pace meant that South Africa were never short of options in the fast bowling department.
Greatest feat – Stopping the Aussie dominance
South Africa’s run of 10 series victories in 12 included wins over formidable ODI sides such as New Zealand, Pakistan and India. However, it was thwarting the Aussie dominance which was the sweetest of the lot.
A perennial thorn in the flesh for the all-conquering Australia side of the time, South Africa made a habit of always putting their best foot forward in the battle against the world champions.
Although the Aussies did get the better of them in the World Cup clash, it was the Proteas who came out on top in each bilateral tussle. They first went to Australia in January, 2009 to thump them in their own backyard by a 4-1 margin.
In the reverse series at home that followed soon after, South Africa once again prevailed in the five-match series by 3-2.
This was an Australian side which contained Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Michael Hussey and Mitchell Starc among others. In fact, Australia’s only losses in the period came against the Proteas and an Indian side in the tri-lateral Commonwealth Bank series.
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