July 7, 2017

The closest rivalries in Test cricket

Since South Africa's readmission, few match-ups have been as closely fought as the one between England and South Africa
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South Africa have won each of their last two series in England © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Since their readmission to international cricket in 1992, South Africa have played ten Test series against England, five at home and five away. They have won four and lost three, while three have been drawn. In England, they hold a 2-1 edge, with two series being drawn, while in South Africa the two teams are level 2-2. In terms of Tests won, South Africa are marginally ahead 14-12, with an 8-6 edge in England, and a 6-6 record in South Africa.

If these numbers suggest two closely matched teams, then consider this: in the ten series between them since 1991, neither team has won two series in a row against the other. In the last eight series, going back to 1998, the series outcomes have followed this pattern: England, South Africa, draw, England, South Africa, draw, South Africa, England. (Going by that sequence, this should be a drawn series.) Also, only once in these series has the victory margin been more than one Test: in 2012, when South Africa won 2-0 in England. Admittedly, there have been a few instances when the losing team has achieved a consolation win in the last Test after the series has been decided, but even so, there has been little to choose between the teams, and a 14-12 win-loss record (in favour of South Africa) indicates the narrow margins.

Last six Test series between England and South Africa
Series Result Winner
 SA in Eng, 2003  2-2  -
 Eng in SA, 2004-05  2-1  England
 SA in Eng, 2008  2-1  South Africa
 Eng in SA, 2009-10  1-1  -
 SA in Eng, 2012  2-0  South Africa
 Eng in SA, 2015-16  2-1  England

Other rivalries have evoked more passion, more romanticism, more history, more media coverage, and more hype, but in terms of closeness of rivalry in the last two and a half decades, look no further than England v South Africa in Tests. No contest has been closer, and in no rivalry have home conditions mattered so little.

Among all the team head-to-heads in Tests since 1990, there have only been four others in which the win-loss ratios have been as close or closer. In 15 Tests between India and Pakistan, each team has won five, with five being drawn. That's the perfect symmetry, and it gets even better when you look at the match-wise results: each win-loss sequence has been in a pair, one following the other immediately. That is the perfect rivalry, except that those teams haven't played each other in Tests in almost a decade.

The Pakistan-Sri Lanka rivalry is another one with a near-perfect symmetry: Pakistan have a 14-13 edge in 42 Tests, with 15 draws. They have a 7-6 lead in Sri Lanka, 4-6 deficit in Pakistan, and 3-1 lead in the UAE, which has been their "home" in the absence of any Test cricket in Pakistan. However, the India-Pakistan and Pakistan-Sri Lanka rivalries are both intra-Asian, which means conditions remain fairly similar when playing home and away.

Very few rivalries have been as closely fought both home and away as the England-South Africa one © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

The two others are in the top five are India-England (14-13 in favour of India) and Australia-India (21-18 to Australia). Unlike the other rivalries mentioned earlier, though, these ones have been heavily loaded in favour of the home teams: against England, India lead 11-3 at home, but are 3-10 in England. Similarly, Australia have been utterly dominant against India at home, with a 16-2 win-loss record; in India, though, they have been quite dismal, winning five and losing 16. In each of these two cases, the overall numbers look deceptively close, but each team does a majority of its winning at home.

Not in the case of England-South Africa, though. Both teams have won plenty in opposition territory, especially recently. Till 2000, both teams were more successful in home conditions, but since 2000, they have each won more in away series: South Africa have won each of their last two series in England, and England have won two of their last three in South Africa. Since the start of 2003, England have a 5-3 win-loss record in South Africa, while South Africa have a 6-3 record in England. In fact, South Africa have won exactly two Tests in each of their last three series in England.

Eng v SA, in Tests since 1994
  In England In South Africa
Period Tests Eng won SA won Tests Eng won SA won
Till Dec 2002 8 3 2 10 1 3
Jan 2003 onwards 12 3 6 13 5 3

The major improvement for South Africa on their recent tours to England has been their batting: on their first couple of tours they averaged only 34.81 runs per wicket, but in their last three, that has gone up to 43.54. Even though the bowling average has gone up as well, the lift in batting numbers has allowed the bowlers enough opportunity to pile the pressure on England's batsmen. After managing only six hundreds in their first eight Tests in England, South Africa's batsmen scored 18 in their next 12.

SA's batting and bowling stats in England
    Batting Bowling
Period Tests Average 100s Wickets Average
Till 2002 8 34.81 6 134 30.91
2003 onwards 12 43.54 18 197 35.13

The two pillars of South Africa's batting in England have been Hashim Amla and Graeme Smith. Smith scored five hundreds - including two doubles - in 12 Tests in England, and averaged 67.75, but England need not worry about him any longer. The batsman that they will worry about, though, is Hashim Amla: in 12 innings in England, he has three hundreds - including an unbeaten 311 - and averages 75.70. In two Tests at Lord's, he has two hundreds, both in the second innings. Moreover, he has excellent records against England's two biggest threats, James Anderson and Stuart Broad, especially in England.

Hashim Amla has stellar numbers against James Anderson and Stuart Broad in England © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

England, meanwhile, will hope that a relatively inexperienced South African top order isn't as deadly this time around: AB de Villiers isn't there, and Faf du Plessis is missing the first Test. That should help them overturn what has been a pretty dismal Lord's record against South Africa: in their last five Tests here, they have lost four. That is just another stat that illustrates the topsy-turvy home-away numbers in England-South Africa Test matches.

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. @rajeshstats

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • rob on July 14, 2017, 5:20 GMT

    The SA/Aus rivalry must be close to making the list. SA haven't won a series in SA since readmission, but they didn't lose them all either. There's been a couple of drawn series I think. They've also won at least 2 series in Oz that I can recall so I reckon it would be pretty close overall.

  • Johann on July 9, 2017, 11:34 GMT

    SA should have won the 1998 series. The neutral umpire for the last two test matches (both of which England won) had not stood in a game, ANY game, for many months (possibly as long as a year). SA bore by far the brunt of the umpiring decisions. In 2003 SA had bad luck and partly themselves to blame. They were so much better that Eng captain Hussain retired halfway through the series. At the Oval (SA 2-1 up in the series) Pollock and Kallis were motoring when one got run out off the bowler's follow-through. Then Paul Adams batted recklessly and ran himself out, in stead of holding an end. SA's 490odd (which might have been 100 more) was then eclipsed by England in fine form. SA collapsed vs a medium pacer in the second innings. In 2004 in SA the series was marred by selection issues. SA lost the first two tests and never recovered even after the selection issues were rectified.

  • asad on July 7, 2017, 22:27 GMT

    I think its unfair to put down the Ind-Pak & Pak-SL rivalries only due to them involving all Asian teams. I think conditions vary enough to pose somewhat of a challenge for visiting teams. India is mainly a spinning pitch with some batting surfaces (which is why home spinners thrive), Pakistan is mainly very flat as far as I've heard (which is why home batsmen have really good averages & reverse swing was invented to give bowlers a say), UAE is dead wickets with nothing for bowler or attacking batsman except those who play patient attritional cricket, SL is spin friendly with a bit of seam & some are flat tracks as well.

  • Praveen on July 7, 2017, 20:29 GMT

    I need not even read this article because of how much I followed the encounters between these two teams for the last 15 years or so. The trend is like, England goes to South Africa and win. South Africa goes to England and win, Never been the case with any other top teams. Closely fought all the time. Paul Collingwood 2009, anyone?

  • OmerPaki123 on July 7, 2017, 20:13 GMT

    the one huge piece that is missing for SA is a wicket-taking spinner and that was evident on the 1st day of the test at lords when Maharaj did not pick any wicket and couldn't keep the English batters tight, other then that if u put AB and FAF back in the team that is playing at the moment, it would be a competitive team to say the least. Still i think Bavuma is a class batsmen he has impressed me when i was watching the highlights of the 2nd day he is like a more athletic Asad Shafiq, hope he gets success at the test level.

  •   cricfan4400264843 on July 7, 2017, 19:17 GMT

    As a south African I have to agree with some that we were NOT the best team. Sa played a cautious game, choosing first to save a game and then win as opposed to the great teams looked to win and then save. However, to have most of your top 6 averaging over 50 and have strike bowlers like steyn, morkel and philander is a strong team. Problem in my opinion was that while boucher was a great wicket keeper his average was low, jp...less said the better, ni decent opening partner with smith and no decent spinner. If those areas were sorted, this could have been the greatest team in history

  • Shehryar on July 7, 2017, 19:10 GMT

    @THOZAR hilarious. pakstan hasnt lost a home/neutral series since 2007 when they lost to south africa. winning at home doesnt make a side no1. india is no1 only because they make pitches tailor made for otherwise useless bowlers such as jadeja and ashwin. we saw how good they are outside india in the champions trophy as well.

  • Friend on July 7, 2017, 18:37 GMT

    S Africa are not the best test side in the world in the last decade as everyone seems to think. They have lost several home series in that time. India have lost only home series in the last 10 years. That enviable record alone makes India the best team in the last decade.

  • Friend on July 7, 2017, 18:29 GMT

    @CLOUDMESS, what are you talking about? Between 2008 and 2015, England and South Africa played each other in 4 series, 2 in England and 2 in South Africa. 2 series were won by S Africa and 1 by England and 1 drawn. Out of 15 tests, S Africa won 6, England won 4. 4 series and 15 tests does not count as "hardly playing" in my book. Just accept it, you were not as invincible as you think you were. You were beaten by the Aussies at home too not to mention the thrashing that India handed you in 2015. It was topped off by a series defeat against England at home. Even Windies and Lanka managed to stave off series defeat against England and we hammered them 4-0 the following winter. That shows how "invincible" S Africa were.

    @JB633, you simply do not understand cricket. Tell me, the tracks provided to England last winter were good tracks, weren't they? Why did England fail miserably? They did score 400 and 477 batting first but still lost by an innings? Explain that please.

  • Master on July 7, 2017, 14:53 GMT

    Its a good match up because both sides have been too reliant on a battery of right arm fast medium bowlers, have had plenty of fractious team selections, have been unable to bowl good spin or bat against it, have been unimaginatively led and frequently bottle the pressure points. Spiritual cousins.

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