JOHANNESBURG: AB de Villiers admitted after a crushing series defeat by England that his South African team no longer deserved their ranking as the leading Test side in the world.
Was it the end of an era, the new South African captain was asked after his side were beaten inside three days by England in the third Test at the Wanderers Stadium on Saturday.
"It's not the same side any more," he said. "It's a difficult question. We're still up there in the rankings but that means absolutely nothing. Our form of late has been pretty poor and it will take something special to turn it around. We're a little bit offbeat at the moment, that's for sure."
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South Africa have been among the leading sides in Test cricket for most of the past decade and had held the official number one ranking since defeating England at Lord's in 2012.
They have not won a Test match since the New Year game against a weak West Indies side last year.
Since then they have lost five and drawn four Tests. Three of the defeats were in India on pitches which favoured spin bowlers and on which South Africa suffered a sequence of collapses.
The retirement of key players such as Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher has been a factor, as have injuries to leading fast bowlers Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander.
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South Africa is not alone in going through a rebuilding phase, however, with the end of a World Cup cycle -- the most recent was in 2015 -- typically leading to some leading players calling time on their careers.
Although fifth-ranked England also have a clutch of relatively inexperienced players, De Villiers admitted: "They're definitely not the number five team in the world, they're better than that. They're a well-balanced team with lots of young players with a lot of talent. It looks like they've got a lot of maturity even though they're young."
The elephant in the room in South African cricket is the issue of race, or "transformation" as it is termed by Cricket South Africa.
There is constant political pressure for South African teams to reflect more closely the country's demographics and there is a target of four "players of colour" in each side that takes the field.
There was major controversy about perceived interference in the selection of the South African one-day team for last year's World Cup semi-final against New Zealand when the team management and selectors were reminded to "properly consider .... transformation guidelines".
The upshot was that Philander, a player of colour, replaced the in-form Kyle Abbott, which reportedly caused considerable unhappiness in the camp.
Asked before the Wanderers Test whether the World Cup controversy had been a factor in the Test team's decline, De Villiers deflected the question by pointing out that the one-day team had continued to perform well.
The performances of two talented black Africans, fast bowler Kagiso Rabada and batsman Temba Bavuma, have come as a welcome boost to the transformation drive.
The race issue is one that is set to linger.
In an effort to produce more black African players of quality, all domestic teams must include a minimum of three black Africans and a total of at least six players of colour, which leaves room for a maximum of five whites in any team.
This, too, has reportedly caused unhappiness among franchise teams, with capable white players having to be sidelined in order to achieve the required racial balance.
De Villiers can do no more than work with the players available to him and believes there is enough talent for South Africa to rise again.
"Not long ago I was that youngster in the team, going through ups and downs at Test level, personally and as a team. You learn a lot from that. It's important just to survive at the moment, to get through this and not give up. You definitely learn a lot and get a lot of experience," he said.
"If guys like Kagiso and a few others get through this patch they'll become much better cricketers."
De Villiers said Kallis and Smith did not become giants of the game overnight.
"We have to find a way to turn it around. That's the way those past players did it, like a Kallis and a Smith. They had some tough times and they found a way to get to the top of the rankings."
De Villiers said he wanted to continue playing Test cricket for as long as possible and hoped to remain captain after his interim appointment for the last two matches against England.
"It's a big responsibility and a great opportunity," he said. "I would love to walk away from the game one day, knowing I have had an influence on some of the younger guys becoming senior players in the team."
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