Road warriors defend imposing record
When Allan Border went almost four years without a Test century between 1988 and 1992, the phrase "not since Faisalabad" became an increasingly weary staple for radio commentators and touring correspondents. South Africa's Test tourists in Australia are similarly accompanied by the words "not since Colombo", but for altogether more auspicious reasons.
Six long years have passed since the South Africans were last beaten in a series away from home, a 2-0 reverse in Sri Lanka in 2006. To quantify this achievement, it must be noted that in more than a decade of dominance between 1995 and 2008, the longest stretch of years Australia could manage between Test series defeats on the road was four, between 2001 and 2005.
Given the garlands laid out for that Australian side, the South Africans deserve a certain level of reverence for their ability to keep confounding opponents in their own territory, most recently England during the northern summer. They may not be the Invincibles, but the squad that arrived in Australia on Sunday can most definitely be termed the Road Warriors.
Their captain, Graeme Smith, believes the team's ability to prosper overseas developed out of maturity and stability. In keeping a team together, the players learned to work with each other, becoming friends as well as team-mates, and going past any sense of fear or uncertainty about the unknowns of foreign climes to develop a sense of confidence and anticipation about any and every challenge that might be presented, whether it be a sharply turning pitch in Kanpur or the green-tinged seamer that is likely to greet them in Brisbane next week.
"We started to get a team together that could adapt to conditions," Smith said. "The maturity of the team in terms of growing as we've gone on ... and the players are settled and able to adapt to conditions not only on the pitch but off the field. All the different challenges that you face on a tour now, I think we're able to meet them. I think the team handles being away from home in a good space and in a mature way.
"It's about understanding how you're going to be successful in the environment that you're playing. We've got a few experienced guys around now that have toured a fair bit and hopefully we use that experience well. Certainly I think it's the challenge that we look forward to, of winning in someone else's backyard. It's a tough thing to do and I think that challenge is something that excites us."
That excitement was never more palpable than during South Africa's last visit to Australia in 2008-09. Helmed by the captain/coach duo of Smith and Mickey Arthur, the tourists wriggled out of dire positions in each of the first two Tests to secure a dramatic series victory, inflicting Australia's first defeat at home since the West Indies in 1993. Those memories provide Smith with confidence about the matches ahead.
"To beat Australia in those stadiums and those environments is something that I don't think South Africans had dreamt of for a very long time," Smith said. "For us to be able to achieve that and be there in those moments was incredible. It probably took us a little bit of time to recover from those highs but since that return leg from Australia we've been pretty steady and consistent in our performances and maybe that was the stepping stone for the success that we've had.
"Winning here four years ago is something that you know you've done before. Certainly it does help in the self-belief factor knowing that you've overcome a hurdle before. I think the achievements the team has put together the last few years, with England just gone by, we obviously do arrive here with a self-belief that we can perform well."
While Arthur now mentors the opposition, South Africa have in Gary Kirsten a calm character and a calming influence, happy to inherit a team that was already well advanced in its quest to build a record that will stand alongside those of other great teams. His challenge is to go one better than Arthur had done, by keeping South Africa at No. 1 in the ICC's rankings for a sustained period. That quest, and the maintenance of such an imposing record overseas, are both at stake over these three Tests in Australia.
"It's a well set team, it's a well balanced team, there's a lot of experience in it and I think they are hardened Test cricketers in the team so they're familiar with the different conditions that they're confronted with," Kirsten said. "I was particularly proud of the guys the way they went about our business in England. There were some pressure moments throughout that series and we responded well to that."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here