Australia v South Africa, 1st Test, Brisbane, 5th day November 13, 2012

South Africa need more killer instinct

Despite reaching the No. 1 rankings, Graeme Smith's side is yet to win two Test matches in succession in almost three years

The uncomfortable truth facing South Africa at the end of the first Test in Australia is not that they went from a position of domination to one where defeat was a genuine possibility. It is not that they misread conditions and fielded an all-pace attack with heavy dependence on a part-time spinner who was then injured. It is not even that their highly-rated attack was finally tamed by an unresponsive surface and their top order bowled out twice.

It is that they have not managed to win two Test matches in succession for their last 21 games - a period which stretches back almost three years - and the last time they won two matches in the same series was four years ago in Australia. Apart from Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, the only other team that has not won back-to-back Tests in the last year is Sri Lanka.

The statistic could speak to conditions or conservative tactics but in South Africa's case it probably indicates one of their most well-documented flaws: the lack of a killer instinct. As a unit, South Africa are entirely capable of creating pressure well but they don't always maintain it with the same rigour.

This match contained a perfect example of that. With Australia 3 for 40, there was a gap for South Africa to widen. Instead, the bowlers allowed Ed Cowan and Michael Clarke to dictate proceedings, with Clarke particularly aggressive. In response, South Africa's bowlers got shorter, instead of fuller and offered width instead of bowl tight lines.

When Australia reached the close on day three on 3 for 111, with Cowan having survived being caught behind because Morne Morkel overstepped, the momentum had already shifted. Graeme Smith recognised that that one moment could have changed their mindset irreparably as the match wore on. "Potentially they could have been four down overnight and we took that [disappointment] into out bowling the next day and sort of just meandered along," he admitted.

Despondent with yet another Morkel wicket off a no-ball, South Africa did not return more determined the next day. They came back even more bedraggled and had a day which brought back memories of Colombo 2006 and the record partnership between Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara.

While Cowan and Clarke did not put on 624, they wore down South Africa's attack, who ran out of ideas on a surface which offered them nothing. "Michael [Clarke] and Cowan transferred the pressure on to us and we didn't quite respond in the way I have got used to our guys responding. I just don't think we backed up well enough," Smith said. "We didn't bowl well enough in partnerships. We had periods where we were good and then we lost our way." Identifying key moments and reacting to them in the right way is what South Africa pinpointed as the area which they needed to improve on most when Kirsten took over as coach. So far, they have not consistently succeeded in doing that.

Against Sri Lanka last year, they won comprehensively in Centurion but seemed to fall into their usual pattern of over-relaxing around the Christmas holiday period in Durban. Complacency and a hoodoo venue, in other words, lapses of the mind, revealed themselves as under-performance on the field.

Against New Zealand, victory in Hamilton should have been followed by victory in Wellington. Smith's declaration showed he was headed that way, although he set New Zealand a target of 389 to win which seemed unlikely. South African's bowlers enjoyed early successes but then ran into a stubborn Kane Williamson and eventually gave up trying to get him out.

Afterwards, Smith said New Zealand did not "deserve" more than improbable target. He seemed as annoyed with their slow run-rate as some were with South Africa's when AB de Villiers and Jacques Rudolph ate up deliveries in the first innings at the Gabba and so Smith wanted to punish New Zealand by denying them even the temptation of a dangled carrot.

On their previous tour in England, though, there were signs that South Africa could sustain their efforts, both physically and mentally. The massive first innings total, declaration and subsequent victory at the Oval moved on to a sporting declaration at Leeds which could have turned into a result with more time - in a similar way as Clarke's could have done at the Gabba.

Even though South Africa only needed a draw at Lord's to go to No.1, they played aggressively throughout the match. But, that style of play was pushed along by a desperate England outfit as much as it was by South Africa. Where the stakes were not as high, like in Brisbane, neither was the hunger.

It was easier to finger the pitch which Smith said "didn't live up to the hype of the build-up," or forgive the bowlers who "majority of the time rock up and perform really well," than actively seek out a way to turn the match into a result. South Africa were happy to play to whatever level was required of them to do just enough and no more.

Previous South African teams have been accused of competing only on the level their opposition requires them to and this one also looks that way at times. The reality is that South Africa are not chasing this series and do not have to move the game along as much as Australia do.

To reclaim the No.1 ranking, Australia have to win the series. All South Africa have to do is make sure they do not lose. That is something they have become astoundingly astute at as their enviable unbeaten streak on the road proves. South Africa could even argue that even though they have not strung together the same amount of victories as other teams, it is them and not the others, who are currently ranked No.1 in the world. They could also find that in order to stay there, that will have to change.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • michael on November 14, 2012, 20:08 GMT

    Ross_co. I think England beat Australia not so long ago and quite handsomely at that. We're also ranked higher and man for man have a much better team/squad of players. SA had a poor day at the office on what was a pudding of a surface. Just wait until the series is over and the one in India and then we will truly know where these teams stand.

  • Abrar on November 14, 2012, 17:43 GMT

    @ Eben Geldenhuis.......... If just you had read my comment thoroughly, I meant to say that all the attacks I mentioned in my comment have atleat 2 or 3 match winning and exceptional bowlers, I did not say Styne is ordinary (even to be honest I really think he is just an over rated bowler, tell me number of games he single handedely won for SA as compared to warne, wasim, waqar or ambrose), I just meantto say right now in the world cricket not a single attach has more than one exceptional bowler in their line up and you can not get 20 wickets in a test depending on only one bowler. So please read carefully rather than jumping to the conclusion of the comment someone made. cheers

  • Dummy4 on November 14, 2012, 15:12 GMT

    We have played 1 test match since becoming number one, I don't see how there could be such expectation from the cricketing world that we much now just lay waste to everyone every game. This game hit us hard on a personel level with Duminy a spectator on the team sheet, that and the general effort in the field being lower than I have seen in a very long time.

    If Australia beat us then so be it, then perhaps they deserve it, but there are still tests to be played and I am dead sure the shackles will break.

  • Nick on November 14, 2012, 15:02 GMT

    @ Meety

    Spot on. I'm South African, and it is possibly the most frustrating thing to see. We have ALWAYS suffered (Specially against the Aussies) to close out the tail. We get complacent. Andre Nel was great for that exact reason.. He would get fired up and instead of lose it, he'd bowl better and really bowl hard at the batsmen.

    We need to bowl like we ARE the No1 team. That doesn't even necessarily mean line and length etc, more about ATTITUDE!!! Australia can walk in with a third rate bowling attack, BUT they will run in and sledge like they are undoubtedly the best, and that pays off.

  • Shalin on November 14, 2012, 14:20 GMT

    "and the last time they won two matches in the same series was four years ago in Australia" - no, the last time they won two matches in the same series was against England a few months ago, and against Sri Lanka a few months before that.

  • Dummy4 on November 14, 2012, 13:05 GMT

    This is an absurd article. As soon as we became number one everyone was ranting and raving about how much we deserve it, and how we have transformed into a deadly mean machine, and now because of 2(maybe 3) bad days we are now lacking a killer instinct? Really?

  • Dummy4 on November 14, 2012, 12:50 GMT

    South Africa is the 'best team in the world'. Every team have their one off test and the fact of the matter is SA were a player short. JP Duminy would have made a big difference in Sa's score and run rate. If he was there the run rate would not have been under 3. And I think next match they should bring in Peterson for Kleinveldt and FAF for Duminy. Robin Peterson can bat and he has more control over the ball than Imran Tahir Tahir would be a better choice at Sydney but there is no test at The SCG. So RP would be a better pick. And the wicket was a batting paradise. Aussies bowled well and created pressure. Thats why Sa were 166/5 in the second innings If it was a low quality bowling attack,they would have been 166 for 1/2

  • Andrew on November 14, 2012, 11:57 GMT

    @Etienne de Beer - ever since your mob beat us 2-1 here, I thought your boys are the #1 side, but time & time again they have failed (IMO), to dominant the Test world. That is what people are talking about. Pretty much everyone (barring jonesy2) would say that on paper - Sth Africa are the best team in the world. They are current #1s, it's time for them to play like it. I do concede that the JP Duminy injury probably affected their performance. Bodes well for a great re-match at Adelaide, hopefully no injuries to either side & no recalled batsmen off a no-ball!!!!!!

  • Nick on November 14, 2012, 11:00 GMT

    At the end of the day, Smith needs to start acting like a captain;

    Come down on guys that under perform, and, as is more important, look in a mirror and question his own decisions. Captains are supposed to be an inspiration on the field, not sit back with arms folded, chewing their gum, setting lost/scared defensive fields.

    Also, the selectors need to be decisive. Morkel is overstepping WAY too often. It is getting worse and worse.. So, CUT HIM IF HE DOESN'T GET BETTER.

    Finally, you can't have 4 bowlers bowl an entire innings, specially not in the Gabba heat. YOU HAVE TO HAVE A PLAN B, NO MATTER WHAT!

  • Dummy4 on November 14, 2012, 7:25 GMT

    I find it bizarre that South Africa plays one ordinary match and suddenly all the praise-singers that arose after the English series are back-tracking and arguing "well actually they're not that great". They had one bad game. And they still managed to salvage a draw. What is the basis of saying that this team "is not chasing this series?", they have expressed on numerous occasions how important winning this series is for them. The fact that they underperformed in Brisbane does not speak to a lack of desire to win, it speaks to a poor performance. They will bounce back - and then suddenly Firdose Moonda will believe us to be a team of greats again. We are not a team of greats yet, but nor are we a team that lacks drive or consistency. And we are the best team in the world at the given moment - despite ONE bad performance.

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