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