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Despite reaching the No. 1 rankings, Graeme Smith's side is yet to win two Test matches in succession in almost three years
Firdose Moonda at the Gabba
November 13, 2012
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 correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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