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South African players dominate the individual rankings, and the team will go into the series starting at Cape Town on Wednesday night knowing even a drawn rubber against New Zealand will ensure they stay top of the world.
They have a five-point lead over England. However, should New Zealand draw the series 1-1, South Africa would slip to be just one point ahead of England on 119 points.
Among the more improbable outcomes, if New Zealand did win the rubber 2-0 it would still sit a lowly eighth on the ladder, ahead of only Bangladesh among the ranked test-playing nations.
Four South African batsmen - Hashim Amla (No 3), Jacques Kallis (6), AB de Villiers (7) and captain Graeme Smith (13) - are in the top 20 on a list headed by Australian captain Michael Clarke.
New Zealand's only representative in that group isn't even in South Africa. Former captain Ross Taylor is ranked No 8.
Among the bowlers, South African pace trio Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel are first, second and eighth respectively. New Zealand have veteran seamer Chris Martin at No 17 and injured Tim Southee at No 20.
Kallis heads the allrounders list, with New Zealand's Dan Vettori, also absent due to injury, at No 5.
- David Leggat of the New Zealand Herald in Cape Town