It is not a word often heard in the context of South Africa's cricketers, although there have been hard men, such as the fast bowler from the Fifties, Peter Heine. Rather the impression, here in England particularly, is one of gentlemanly cricketers of the old school, performing dashingly or dourly according to their talents and their temperaments. In the field their speed to the ball and their quick, accurate throwing were the epitome of their enthusiasm for the game, and when they won a Test they were invariably decent enough to lose some as well. They were good fellows, it was said.
The record shows that in their 102 meetings before today, England have won 46 Tests and South Africa 18. Of those 18, however, 13 have been at home and 11 of those were on matting pitches up to and including the first Test of the 1930-31 series. Only in 1913-14, when the legendary S F Barnes took 49 wickets in his four Tests, did England have South Africa on the mat, winning the five-match series 4-0.
Victories came harder in England, and the South Africans had visited four times before winning their first Test in 1916, and with it the series. Romantically, their victory was at Lord's, albeit a Lord's infested by a plague of leatherjackets which caused bare patches on the pitch to be exploited by the leg-spinning Greek chemist, Xenophon Balaskas. He took 5 for 49 in the first innings and 4 for 54 in the second as England, set 309 to win in four and three-quarter hours, were bowled out for 151 and beaten by 157 runs. In between, Bruce Mitchell scored a dogged, unbeaten 164, the highest score for South Africa at Lord's.
Spin, in the off-breaks of Athol Rowan and the slow left-arm of 'Tufty' Mann, brought South Africa their next victory - at Trent Bridge in the opening Test of the 1951 series. But England won three of the next four Tests. Dudley Nourse and Eric Rowan were the batting stalwarts, while in Jackie McGlew, Roy McLean, John Waite behind the stumps, and the off-spinner Hugh Tayfield they had cricketers who would fight England all the way in their next series.
Fired by the fast-bowling pair of Neil Adcock and Heine, the South Africans recovered from 2-0 down in 1958 to win at Old Trafford and Headingley. The hard-driving Paul Winslow encapsulated their adventurous spirit with a six over the sight-screen off Tony Lock to reach his only Test century.
With Laker and Lock holding the winning hand on The Oval pitches of the day, England took the series 3-2, and 10 years passed before South Africa won again in England. As no one needs reminding, that 1965 series, won 1-0 by the Springboks, was the last played here by South Africa.
The team who came here then under Peter van der Merwe were on the brink of a greatness they would achieve by the end of the decade, before politics cast them from the international arena. The Pollock brothers, Peter a formidable fast bowler, 21-year-old Graeme a powerful left-handed batsman with exciting natural gifts, virtually beat England themselves at Trent Bridge. Graeme's free hitting brought him a century and a half-century; Peter took five wickets in each innings.
Thrilling, too, was Colin Bland, who drew crowds simply to admire the way he gathered the ball and threw down the stumps in one swift movement. This was, however, a skill born of hours of practice, and the 1965 side contained others such as Eddie Barlow and Ali Bacher, whose natural abilities were tempered by application and dedication.
Soon they would be joined by Mike Procter, a hostile fast-bowling all-rounder, and later by the steely brilliance of the opening batsman Barry Richards. England saw these two in county cricket, never in Springboks colours. Only Australia experienced this team of champions and were overwhelmed 4-0 in 1969-70. Overwhelmed not just by talent, but also by a new if unexpected quality. Like their predecessors, these South Africans were young, attractive, gifted and entertaining. But like their Springboks compatriots on the rugby field, they were also hard. Over the coming weeks we will see if today's South African cricketers have inherited that same quality.