South Africa in Australia 2012-13 October 27, 2012

South Africa begin scrap to stay on top

South Africa face their first series as No. 1. Given the frequency with which the Test mace has changed hands recently and that their opponents are Australia, this will be the stiffest of challenges for them

Sometimes the best way to learn something about other people is to watch them, rather than speak to them. With professional sportsmen that may be the case more so than with others.

In the age of managed news, where almost all conversations between them and reporters happen with a press conference table and microphone between them, there's very little to be gleaned from such an affair.

In fact, Graeme Smith said almost exactly the same things at this engagement - the team's departure conference ahead of the Australia series - as he did four months ago when they left for England. And AB de Villiers was the voice behind those words in March, when the team toured New Zealand. It was him, rather than Smith, because the limited-overs squad left first.

So, it was much more beneficial to watch the squad as they played with children from the mini-cricket programme as part of their send-off, than to speak to them. The event was sponsor-organised and managed, but it allowed the South Africans to enjoy about 45 minutes of unmonitored fun and they took every opportunity to do that.

De Villiers was the most involved and perhaps understandably so. He is the only one who has been kept out of action through injury recently. His chronic lower back issues ruled him out of the Champions League T20, although the management are confident he will be ready to play in Australia. For a moment, he seemed to think the small section of the airport corridor was the Australian team when he took guard against a seven-year-old and smashed him into the crowd, hitting someone. After that, he was markedly more sedate.

Faf du Plessis, Robin Peterson and Rory Kleinveldt, the touring members who are not likely to play in the Tests, clowned around. Hashim Amla, Dale Steyn, JP Duminy and Vernon Philander tried to show the youngsters how to perfect their game - they are after all four of the best. Smith had his fatherhood hat on and he spent probably the longest time of all in the middle. Imran Tahir tried not to get lost in the commotion, as he has been doing for his entire Test career and Jacques Kallis took it all very seriously and casually hit three sixes before doing the right thing and retiring.

In case you're wondering, Alviro Petersen, Jacques Rudolph, Morne Morkel and Thami Tsolekile were not hiding. They will only depart on Monday, after the conclusion of the Champions League.

The members of the squad who were there certainly didn't look like a team who had the burden of No. 1 around their necks. They looked like a relaxed bunch of men having a good time under the watchful eye of Gary Kirsten, who did not participate but smiled from the sidelines.

"Touring is tough. No one should underestimate how tough it is to win away from home. An opposition playing in their conditions is daunting, the crowd is daunting and media is daunting. You need to play some good cricket and you need to show some inner strength to do well."
South Africa Test captain Graeme Smith

That attitude will be crucial to their defence of the ranking in Australia. When the title was won in England, Smith spoke about the importance of holding on to it, rather than celebrating having gained it, almost immediately. Given that it has changed hands with frequency recently, that was a wise thing to do.

On their first tour since being crowned the world's best, South Africa face the chance of losing that label; defeat will put Australia on top, any other result will see South Africa hold their position. And for the first time, they travel to Australia as favourites instead of underdogs.

"We've earned the right to go there with that mantle," Smith said. "And we are quietly confident in our ability to go there and be successful. Touring is tough. No one should underestimate how tough it is to win away from home. An opposition playing in their conditions is daunting, the crowd is daunting and media is daunting. You need to play some good cricket and you need to show some inner strength to do well."

The mental shift in South Africa's game was believed to have happened in England. They defined their Test series win on being able to overcome in the "big moments", which really means they think they can finally perform under pressure.

Now it will be about showing they can do that consistently. For that to happen, they have to first get over the dizzying ecstasy of triumph and sober up for their next assignment. Smith believes the break in between has allowed them to do that. "You need to have time to reflect," he said.

"It's nice to enjoy the success but these days, in international cricket, the turnaround is pretty quick and you have to focus on the next thing. This is the next step. We knew that we had the two big tours this year. We've overcome one of those hurdles and we're looking forward to this one."

South Africa are in the middle of one of their busiest cricketing periods. This year, they have had three away tours and return from Australia to full home summer that includes visits from New Zealand and Pakistan. The more they play, the more opportunity they have to stamp their authority on the No. 1 spot. However, the reverse also applies.

On receiving the mace, which now sits proudly in CSA's offices across the road from the Wanderers Stadium, Smith said South Africa's challenge would be to show stability when the winds come to blow them off their perch. The first gusts are a plane flight away. Few places are tougher than Australia to challenge in, never mind winning.

The only way to approach such as task will be the way Smith has admitted to doing so himself when he performs at his best: by being at peace. Such an artistic state of mind may not immediately seem the method of a sportsman but a few minutes of watching the squad play with children whose weekend they no doubt made would have told you that is the frame of mind they are all in.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Karthik on October 30, 2012, 18:21 GMT

    @disco_bob - Its India who busted your streak, in 2001 Kolkata and 2008 Perth.

  • Masood on October 30, 2012, 5:42 GMT

    South Africa still will remain on TOP. Be careful Australia.

  • disco on October 29, 2012, 16:47 GMT

    SA busted our 16 match winning streak in 2009 and this time we get to upset their 6 year away record of not losing a series.

  • Daniel on October 29, 2012, 9:37 GMT

    @Landl47, can you really describe Hussey as a quality bat anymore? In his last 11 innings against SA he averages just 9.5. Ponting is also on the way down; he struggles against real pace (as does admittedly Kallis). I would say Clarke is the only world class batsman Aus have right now. The rest are either past it, short on experience or unable to convert consistently enough. I think the pace attacks are very similar talent wise, neither team has a class spinner, and so it will come down to who bats better, and if de Villiers is fit enough to keep then SA's top 7 is a lot stronger than Aus's

  • Kieron on October 29, 2012, 7:40 GMT

    @ Chris Sun: Have you considered that fact, that if it wasn't for rain in New-Zealand And England, Sa would have probably won both those series 3-0!? Nice talking about " Not winning two test in a row", but if you want to be so smart, please try and use all the facts , and not just the convenient ones! If there is no rain, don't be surprised if South-Africa whitewash Australia! And you know what Chris, that would mean South-Africa would have won 3 tests in a row!!!!Be Prepared mate!

  • John on October 29, 2012, 4:47 GMT

    @bobagorof: When I said 'the only real quality bats are Clarke, Ponting and Hussey', my intention was to state that Ponting and Hussey were quality bats. I thought that saying they were quality bats made that clear. Would it help if I wrote it with the caps lock on?

  • Michael on October 29, 2012, 2:10 GMT

    @land47: Are Ponting and Hussey not quality bats just because they're 37? Sure, they're past their prime but either they're quality or not. I agree with you, though - Australia is excited about its pace bowlers but the batting remains questionable. South Africa don't seem as exciting by comparison but have some very strong, reliable performers and I expect Steyn and Philander to rip through a lineup at least once on tour. Should be a good series. My heart says Australia but my head says South Africa.

  • Jay on October 28, 2012, 22:14 GMT

    Should be a good series. A 1-1 result looks likely.

  • John on October 28, 2012, 19:15 GMT

    South Africa has a strong all-round team, with half a dozen stars. The only conditions I wouldn't like them in are rank turning wickets, and I don't think they'll get many of them in Australia. The big question is whether Australia's batting can hold up. If it can, then Aus has a chance. However, looking at the Aus line-up, the only real quality bats are Clarke, Ponting and Hussey- and Ponting and Hussey are 37 years old. Can they get enough runs to allow the bowlers to work their way through the SA batting line-up? That's where the series will be won and lost.

  • Kendal on October 28, 2012, 10:36 GMT

    @Chris Sun...Everyone siad the same about Philander before the England tour, he's played all his games at home, will struggle overseas, let's see him play on the subcontinent blah blah blah...well by the end of that tour most of the England commentators like Boycott, David Lloyd, Gower etc. were singing his praises. He's played a lot of first class cricket and knows how to bowl in differnt conditions. In fact I think the bounce of places like Perth (if it's the same as it used to be) will suit him down to the ground. The last time he bowled at Australia on a pitch that took off (in Cape Town) he got 8 wickets in the match.

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