While the cricket world continues to salute the current Australia side as one of the best in the game's history, South Africa are rapidly emerging as challengers to their superiority. True, they cannot match Australia's record run of 16 successive Test wins. But a look at the International Cricket Council's Test table, reveals them to be far closer to Australia than rest of the pack.
The Aussies lead the field with an average of 1.62. South Africa lie in second place with 1.50, while England are third with 1.14. The gulf between Australia and South Africa and the rest is, therefore, immense. South Africa have managed to win 12 out of their last 17 Test series, including victories in Pakistan and India. They are the only team that can match the Aussies for consistency both home and away. Australia have lost only three times abroad over the past four years-to India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and are unbeaten at home.
South Africa have lost three times in 17 series, to Australia (home and away) and to England abroad. It is perhaps true that South Africa lack Australia's ruthlessness, but when they had the opportunity to wipe the floor with the West Indies, they achieved the same 5-0 scoreline.
The two top teams in Test cricket collide in December and January with six Tests split evenly home and away and only then will we know who can lay claim to the title of the world's best side. Right now the two teams are warming up for that battle. South Africa have just beaten India in the first Test of three and Australia warm up by entertaining New Zealand with the first Test at Brisbane on Thursday. Their impressive records should continue. But while they are close, there is clearly a gap between the sides and that lies in Australia's staggering strength in depth.
There are Aussie batsmen in England's County Championship who would walk into other national sides, and fast bowlers like Damien Fleming, Andy Bichel and spinners Colin Miller and Stuart MacGill to call on. South Africa have few such luxuries. Andre Nel and Justin Kemp do not quite match up to their frontline attack of Shaun Pollock and Allan Donald (when fit). They do have in Boeta Dippenaar a young batsman versatile enough to cover all bases and Neil McKenzie has promise, but there is not much else ready to step in. And as Australia have shown so readily, it is not so much the personnel as the attitude.
But South Africa are now showing a toughness and resolve that is now a match for Australia. Their performances have instilled a belief in not only their players, but also their politicians. Sports minister Ngconde Balfour said: "I think we are going to do very well against Australia with the depth of talent we (South Africa) have."
"Come here Australia, we are going to murder you," he said.
Come the end of March we will see if Balfour's faith is backed by substance.