They are not the superpower of yesteryear but going on a tour of the Caribbean is still something every young cricketer dreams of. Should you wish to remind yourself what West Indies cricket was all about, simply take a look at Fire in Babylon, which documents the islands’ team of the 1970s and ’80s. It should come with a parental guidance warning.
Unfortunately, most of the current generation of cricket followers won’t appreciate what West Indies brought to the table. Fiery fast bowlers who loved to play ‘chin music’, fearless batsmen and an unbridled passion for the game. For South Africans it was also probably appropriate that the country’s first Test since readmission following two decades of isolation, was on a tour to the Caribbean.
It was played in Bridgetown, in April 1992. Back then, South Africans believed their rugby and cricket national teams had not been affected by the international isolation, and the public largely believed the ‘rebel tours’ across both codes had steeled them for what lay ahead in full competition.
Those hopes were helped by South Africa beating hosts Australia in the 1992 Cricket World Cup and reaching the semi-final where they were cruelly affected by rain which left them needing 22 runs off 13 balls, then 22 off seven and finally, 22 off one ball.
A month later the South African Test team arrived in the Caribbean for that one-off Test in Barbados.
Things went well for the tourists. They reduced the hosts from 99-0 to 258 all out in their first innings, with Richard Snell taking four wickets. In their turn at the crease Andrew Hudson struck a glorious 163 as South Africa reached 345 all out, a lead of 87. But Brian Lara (64) and Jimmy Adams (79no) helped West Indies set a target of 201.
After day four, South Africa were 122-2, needing 80 runs to win on the final day and prove to the world that they were starting in 1992 where they’d left off in 1970 with that 4-0 Test drubbing of Australia. That’s when Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh introduced themselves to the tourists.
South Africa lost their last eight wickets for 25 runs on the final morning, with both fast bowling legends taking four wickets apiece and the Test going in favour of the hosts by 52 runs. ‘Welcome back South Africa!’
Since then the Proteas have gone to the Caribbean on three other occasions.
In 2001, South Africa won a five-Test series 2-1, and in 2005 and in 2010 it was a 2-0 victory. Reverse tours, with West Indies in South Africa, have been just as convincing. In fact, overall in seven subsequent series following the 1992 one-off, the Proteas have dominated them all, with an 18-2 winning record.
Still, it’s been 11 years since South Africa played Test cricket in the Caribbean, and it’s probably fair to say that both countries aren’t the force they used to be.
After the series win in 2010, Cricinfo wrote: ‘It was Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn, the most incisive new-ball pair in the world, who took the plaudits. Fast bowling has suffered under the torrent of lifeless pitches and endless cricket in recent times, but the South African pair gave the few spectators at the Queen’s Park Oval memories of old as they efficiently chipped their way through the tired surface and West Indies’ top-order.’
It could be argued that this was one of the stronger Test teams the Proteas have fielded: Graeme Smith, Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Ashwell Prince, Mark Boucher, Paul Harris, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Lonwabo Tsotsobe. They were far too much for the once-mighty West Indies.
The latest ICC Test rankings put India on top of the ladder, followed by New Zealand, England, Australia and Pakistan. Only then, at No 6, do we find West Indies, with South Africa ranked No 7. Have the Proteas really slipped that far, or are the rankings yet another example of how crazy points systems influence the world of sport? Most would answer the latter.
The first Test takes place from Thursday and eyes are on the red ball where Dean Elgar leads his troops into battle in the Caribbean. Just not quite the daunting challenge it once was.
Played 27. South Africa have won 18, West Indies 3, drawn 5.
INDIVIDUAL TEST WORLD RANKINGS
16 Aiden Markram (SA)
19 Dean Elgar (SA)
22 Quinton de Kock (SA)
33 Faf du Plessis (SA)
38 Jason Holder (WI)
43 Kraigg Brathwaite (WI)
45 Nkruma Bonner (WI)
46 Temba Bavuma (SA), Jermaine Blackwood (WI)
50 Kyle Mayers (WI)
8 Jason Holder (WI)
9 Kagiso Rabada (SA)
12 Kemar Roach (WI)
24 Shannon Gabriel (WI)
33 Keshav Maharaj (SA)
36 Anrich Nortje (SA)
37 Roston Chase (WI)