South Africa in Australia 2012-13 November 20, 2012

Can South Africa shed their caution?

The last time South Africa won successive Tests was in 2010 and the last time they did it in the same series was in 2008. Under Graeme Smith, they have become exceptional at not losing, but not at winning consistently

The ability to force a positive result could be the difference between South Africa and Australia in this series. Michael Clarke's declaration in Brisbane was held up as an illustration of positive intent while Graeme Smith was questioned for letting the game drift.

Smith became known as a defensive captain for most of his career but there were signs of that changing over the last year as South Africa got closer to the No.1 ranking. The most recent example was when he declared against England at Headingley in August and set them 253 to win in the final session. Although a successful chase seemed unlikely, Smith showed belief in his bowlers to make something happen in a short time, similar to what Clarke did in Brisbane.

Talk ahead of the Adelaide Test is that Australia hold the momentum having earned a "winning draw." Ricky Ponting was careful not to write off South Africa's capability to create situations from which they could win but acknowledged that they were blunted out of the match in Brisbane thanks to a shrewd Australian strategy.

"We had to make sure last week that when we were behind we were giving ourselves a chance to get back in front of the game," Ponting said. "I think it was a good declaration from Michael last week, it gave us a chance to put a bit of pressure on them, and there was only one team going into the last day that could win that game and it was going to be Australia. We're expecting them to be a better team this week."

South Africa are promising exactly that. AB de Villiers said improvements have been made en masse and Alviro Petersen indicated they are ready to play "tomorrow." Petersen also admitted that the rained out day in Brisbane thwarted South Africa and they ended up settling for less than they hoped to get out of the match.

"We dominated day one and the rain came. We had to change plans to still try and get a result. But we always play to win," Petersen said. In the second innings, making a game of it was the last thing on South Africa's minds. "We were just trying to stay there for as long as possible and not worry about the runs. "

While a stodgy South African second innings was inevitable, given the match situation, there were still frowns at the first-innings approach on the third day. De Villiers, Jacques Rudolph and the tail were content to play time rather than actively move the game forward.

Ponting said advancing proceedings is an Australian speciality and has been partly responsible for their success. "One of our strengths as an Australian team over the years has been our ability to keep the game going forward," Ponting said. "We're a team that don't play many drawn games, weather permitting there's normally results in games that we play, and hopefully there'll be a result in this game as well."

Over the course of Ponting's career, which began in December 1995, draws were the rarest result for Australia. Of the 166 matches he has played, Australia won 108, lost 30 and drew just 28. Petersen's sample size is much smaller but even so, there is something worth noting. In the 17 Tests he has represented South Africa in they enjoyed seven victories, suffered just two losses and drew eight times.

The last time South Africa won successive Tests was in early 2010 and the last time they did it in the same series was four years ago, against Australia. Under Smith, they have become exceptional at not losing, but not at winning consistently.

A more cautious approach in this series could be put down to the bigger picture in which South Africa for once are not on the hunt. "This time around is different because we are No.1. In previous series, we were chasing, this time we are holding on," Petersen said.

They do not even have the added incentive that winning in Australia will prove a point because they have done it before. Petersen was visibly irritated when asked if that was added motivation. "We won here the last time. How many times do you have to win to prove a point?" he asked.

Despite that previous success, Australia still remains a territory worth conquering if only because of how tough it is. The home side make it as difficult as possible both physically and mentally. South Africa have spent the week playing down the talk about sledging and Petersen was no different. "Cricket remains a game that will be played on the pitch," Petersen said. "When you say stuff you have to back it up on the pitch. And it's nice to get some verbals from the opposition."

Sometimes, Australia can even be quite complimentary as Ponting was in parts. "If you're the No. 1 team in the world you make things happen in Test cricket," he said of South Africa. "They've won a lot of Test matches of late so they're obviously making things happen."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on November 21, 2012, 19:45 GMT

    In South Afriica's defence, it's not as if Clarke make an aggressive deceleration: if he'd been really up for winning the game he could have declared at the start of Friday morning and then tried to chase the runs down.

  • hayden on November 21, 2012, 12:35 GMT

    this is why its inevitable australia will get to no. 1 again and hold the position. their biggest rivals in india, south africa and england all have this negative 'play for the draw the momment they hit a bump in the road. as a fan its far better seeing your team loose trying to get a win, than to approach 2 whole days of test cricket (which all 3 teams mentioned are guilty of in the past on occasions) looking only to hold on to draw.

  • Ben on November 21, 2012, 12:30 GMT

    ok ok. JP was a big loss with the bat, no-one will doubt that, but can people please stop saying that SAF lost their spinner!! He is a part-timer! If you are going into a test as him as a main 'weapon' (as many seem to suggest), then the strategy was doomed anyway. He has taken only 12 wkts in tests, he was never going to do anything on that flat Gabba track. Again, BIG loss for batting, negligible loss with the ball.

  • Andrew on November 21, 2012, 6:29 GMT

    IMO - Sth Africa should of had a far better win % over the last 5 years than they ended up with. Smith is part of the reason, they have had more than enuff talent at his disposal. The Saffas had to overcome a hurdle at the Gabba losing Duminy, & hence their mindset probably changed. At no stage did any of their frontline batsmen on Day 3 look to up the scoring - it slowed. It wasn't until some lusty swinging by the tail did the run rate inch back to 3 rpo. The reality is though @Val Hayes - Duminy was not a loss in the field, he would barely have bowled 10 overs in a day (he averages 55 balls a test). If you call Duminy a spinner with 12 wickets in 17 tests, there are real problems with the Saffa mental approach!

  • Philip on November 21, 2012, 3:23 GMT

    @SurlyCynic has a point about Sth Africa needing AB deVilliers' explosive batting. Why then is he encumbered with the gloves? It doesn't make sense. You'd think the Adelaide Oval would be tailor-made for bringing in Tsolekile as well and thus letting AB loose with the bat. It would be bad luck to Rudolph but surely it'd help avoid a draw.

  • Vleis on November 20, 2012, 16:32 GMT

    SA may, or may not, be more conservative than Oz, but the poorly constructed 'evidence' in this article does not support the former view. I'm not sure how Smith's declaration can be compared to Clarke's. At least the former gave England a chance (albeit slim) of winning the match, whereas Carke's declaration was negative, as he should've declared overnight and got stuck into SA in the morning....and saved two overs to boot. Just out out of interest, in the past two years, SA has participated in only one single non-rain affected drawn test...and even that was a classic v India at Newlands. That said, both teams must play in a manner that makes them comfortable.

  • Mark on November 20, 2012, 15:35 GMT

    Great points SurlyCynic. Spot on. Also agree Smith has been a defensive captain traditionally, but whatever your inclination as a captain, you need the personnel to make wins happen, particularly on the bowling front. As good as the attack looks now, Philander is a recent addition, until recently they had Harris as the spinning (non) threat, Morkel has until the last 12 months performed in fits and starts, and Kallis whilst still a good 4th seamer hasnt been a huge wicket take for a while (and they try and avoid overworking him). Remember last time England went to SA?? Fear also SA's reputation's "draw not win" rep is as much down to losing matches at home they "should" have won, drawing 3 test series 1-1, rather than anything to do with their style of cricket.

  • Dummy4 on November 20, 2012, 11:44 GMT

    Its funny how our "South African" correspondents seem to fall so easily into playing the Aussie's mind games for them. In all the rehashing of the 1st test we keep getting told how great the come-back for the Aussies was. On the flattest 3rd day pitch (on the 4th day) we battled to get wickets. They do not mention that we batted on the juciest pitch, lost a day, lost a batsman, lost our spinner, and did not make a drama out of it. I do not think that the Aussies can read too much into their draw. I do not think that we need endless advice to our bowlers from Australians via our media. I think that if they want any advice at all on bowling on Adelaide in 40 + degree heat, they can refer better the the man who did it best for us - Polly. I am sure that Gary and Alan who have played there know a lot about the pitfalls and the advantages that we may find there - let us leave it to them

  • Guy on November 20, 2012, 10:34 GMT

    Setting a team 253 in a session is hardly bold. More importantly, in what way did South Africa "change their game plan" on Day 3 - was their plan to 'score much slower' than on Day 1 on Day 2, which they then amended to 'score only a little bit slower' when Day 2 was rained out? Whilst I have tremendous respect for the individual South African cricketers and the combative way they play, I think they still have a very defensive and attritional approach which doesn't lend itself to turning draws into victories. @SurlyCynic, easy to blame the rain for the NZ draw but my recollection is that the rain was forecast and people felt Smith's declaration was late.

  • des on November 20, 2012, 9:50 GMT

    It should be remembered that AB (and occasionally Duminy) have been the ones providing the acceleration in recent times, once Amla and Kallis have laid the foundation. AB has a number of almost run-a-ball hundreds over the last few years, but since becoming the keeper has got out in the 40s just as he's started to accelerate. It's up to him and Faf to get back to this approach. This stuff about SA drawing seems overstated, the last 3 draws (Aus, Eng, NZ) were all weather affected.

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