South Africa in Australia 2012-13 December 4, 2012

Du Plessis, Peterson among South Africa's huge gains

Apart from the No.1 ranking, and the knowledge that they are the first team in nearly two decades to win Test series in Australia twice, South Africa have more to take away from their 1-0 victory.

They will take the recognition of Graeme Smith as one the great leaders of his time, the ever-growing appreciation for Jacques Kallis, the quiet quality of Hashim Amla's contribution and the more brash ones of Dale Steyn. However, the most precious thing they will take is the birth of a new Test player and the rebirth of an old one.

Faf du Plessis and Robin Peterson underlined what really gives a team the ability to dominate: a continuum. Both have been members of South Africa's squads across all formats and when the time came for them to step up in a Test situation, they did.

In du Plessis, South Africa have a reader of the game that will serve them better than a kindle does a frequent traveller. In Peterson, they have a blend of experience and exuberance, which helped deepen his understanding of his role and how it can fit the needs of the team.

Du Plessis succeeded because he is able to see opportunity and take it. He learnt that in an unlikely place: the IPL. At Chennai Super Kings, he was acquired as bench strength and had to challenge Michael Hussey for a place in the starting XI. When Hussey was unavailable for part of a season, du Plessis saw a small chance and snatched it. "Competition is great for the team," he said. "I grew a lot from the experience of competing with Hussey and I learnt to make sure that when I get the chance to score runs, I do."

The situation on the fourth day of the Adelaide Test was not what most would call an opening. With a rampant Australian attack on the prowl for six wickets to take an unassailable lead in the series, du Plessis' best hope, to those on the outside, was to try and survive. Not much more could have been expected from a rookie, especially after he had already done his bit in the first innings, but du Plessis wanted to be more than a sacrificial lamb.

"I've really pushed the ceiling in four-day cricket over the last two years and I really enjoy trying to score hundreds," he said. Du Plessis transferred his domestic form to Tests effortlessly and displayed a maturity of someone who had played 78 first-class games before making a debut.

After his resistance in Adelaide, du Plessis understood the extent of the psychological dent he had caused in the opposition camp. "For us, just to hang on was important," he said. "Afterwards, the whole team had the sense that the Australians threw everything at us and we still managed to hang on. We knew that to turn around, mentally and physically, after that would be tough for them."

It's those two aspects of Test cricket that du Plessis enjoys most. The game is played in the mind as much as it is on the field. "After five days, you feel like you have run the Comrades Marathon. I love it."

Peterson also regards Test cricket as the "purest" form of the game, although he did not think he would ever play it again. After appearing four times for South Africa, his only mark on the format was being hit for 28 runs in an over by Brian Lara. Now, he can joke about that. "It always comes up but really, it was just the way I bowl. I kept tossing it up and I felt I was in with a chance. There's no disgrace in being tonked by Brian Lara."

Peterson's style of bowling was never considered good enough for South Africa over a sustained period, and he is now the perfect advertisement for recycling. With the amount of time he spent on the fringes, he could easily have been forgotten. Peterson had only played 40 ODIs in nine years before the 2011 World Cup, when he was finally given more than just a smattering of matches.

With a little bit of backing, Petersen finished as the leading wicket-taker for South Africa at the World Cup and that, along with his stint at Derbyshire, helped his confidence. "With county cricket, you learned to play cricket week in and week out and having to get yourself up mentally to perform all the time." Dismissing players like Mark Ramprakash and Younis Khan helped Peterson realise he could do it without changing his fundamentals.

It took a little longer than that for South African cricket to warm to him. Peterson said he felt like he needed to be someone he wasn't, but that changed after the World Cup. "I'm being myself more now. The skill level never changed but it's more about being comfortable with who you are as a person. It comes with maturity and growing up."

Peterson's development is a microcosm for what has happened with the whole South African side. Ricky Ponting noted it when he said they were "not scared" to pull the rug so far from under Australia's feet that it caused them to fall over. That may sound like an obvious thing for a sporting unit to do but it is not. Sometimes they hold back from annihilating an opponent as completely as they can.

South Africa are slowly shedding that tendency. Peterson has been part of the squad for long enough to have witnessed it firsthand. "We're a lot smarter and lot more prepared to take risks, which we wouldn't have been in the past," he said. "It comes with maturity as people. If you look around, Hashim is playing the best he has ever played, Graeme has also gone to a new level, and guys like Faf are coming in and performing under pressure."

It's the last of those examples that matters most. A good team can be built on a few exceptional players but great teams have to be built on generations. South Africa's may be beginning.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent