England v South Africa, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley August 1, 2012

South Africa aim for new script

Graeme Smith believes his side is ready to end the cycle of repeats that has seen them miss out on No. 1 spot in the Test rankings

Like Friends and The Simpsons, South Africa's cricket team have been on your screens doing their thing time and time again. The only difference is that despite numerous episodes and re-runs, too many to count, the team have not come out with a fairytale ending like Rachel and Ross, or laughing like Homer and Bart.

When the sporting equivalent of a 30-minute TV episode is over, South Africa have usually found themselves in the same place they were when the opening credits rolled: somewhere close to the top but never actually on top. Frankly, it has not been a bad place to be. Always second- or third-best, although once much lower, it has allowed them to command adequate respect and put them in a position to continually challenge to be the absolute best.

That they had only been able to call themselves that for a few months three years ago, illustrates how close but how far they have always been. And here they are again. The scene setter has been broadcast, the jingle has played, louder than on previous occasions, with an innings-and-12 run win at The Oval, and the first ad break has been taken.

This time it was spent playing a two-day tour match in Worcester while the captain jetted home to welcome his new-born daughter into the world and the rest having a fancy dress party in the lead up to the second part of the show. While both those are circumstantial differences to the norm, for South Africa to have a different outcome at the end of this series to the one they are usually stuck with, something more substantial has to have changed.

In cricketing terms, South Africa cannot do much more. With an unbeaten record away from home that stretches back to 2006, a thundering victory in the first Test and the big name players living up to their reputations, only fine-tuning is necessary. Concerns such as Alviro Petersen's lack of form on the tour so far, Jacques Rudolph and JP Duminy's lack of time in the middle and assessing and adapting to conditions at Headingley have been dealt with. It is other terms that South Africa's real progress will be measured. Having not won consecutive Tests in a single series since 2008 and not won back-to-back matches in two years, maintaining momentum is one of those things.

Historically, South Africa have not been able to do it. The last two times they have played against the No. 1 side in the world, which was then India, they squandered a 1-0 lead. In 2010, they won by an innings in Nagpur only to lose in Kolkata, and in the return leg, South Africa were held 1-1 at home, again after opening with an innings victory. Overall, they have lost immediately after going ahead in three of their last four series.

Conversely, not allowing the momentum that has taken them to the brink of No. 1 again to sweep them away is another issue that must be addressed. Pressure presents itself in a different form because it is the not anxiety of win-or-lose-everything, situations that have haunted South Africa in knockout matches, but the expectancy of win-and-gain everything that has existed before and will come again. Managing that is going to be the most challenging thing that will face the squad over the next five days.

The person who has led the team throughout their seemingly endless hover near greatness and maintained the stoic attitude needed to prevent losing sight of the ultimate goal, knows that best. "Keeping emotions in check is crucial," Graeme Smith said. "The mental energy that we have in our squad is an important thing. You can feel the intensity among the group at the moment."

A fresher attitude at the key stage of the series is the only tangible thing Smith thinks makes this time different to all the others. They have kept their performance graph a fairly straight line and their gazes firmly fixed on that distant point in the future that has almost always eluded them.

"We've got most of our bases covered in terms of players but as a group of men, this is the best group of men that I have been around"
Graeme Smith

"Nothing has been too up or too down. We've trained as hard and we've prepared as well as ever," Smith said. "We don't expect England to give us anything for free. We know we are going to have to earn it and we have the mindset where we can do that."

As insurance against making this match the ultimate as far as South African cricket's future is concerned, Smith already went as far as talking about the need to maintain good form rather than just achieve it for brief periods. "We understand that the job is not done and it's not done for a period of time, if we want to see ourselves at the top of the rankings consistently," he said.

This is not South Africa's last chance to become world No. 1, neither is the final Test of the series at Lord's because they go on to play a three-match series in Australia in November. But it is as clear cut a chance as they have had in recent times.

Smith knows it and so coloured his words carefully, making sure he said the immediate goal was the next five days. He also provided extensive evidence that South Africa are ready, not just to win one match and rise to the top but, once they do that, to stay there. "We are training every day to be the kind of team that can consistently go forward. We need to walk that walk out in the middle and win those games now to prove that to people. We would love to be holders of the No. 1 title and be the team that can push forward."

What can dramatically aid that cause is what Smith identified as one of the immeasurables that have made the team he is currently in charge of different to any other. "We've got most of our bases covered in terms of players but as a group of men, this is the best group of men that I have been around," he said. It's a group he will be hoping are not keen on repeats but who will be eager to break new ground from Thursday.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • shahbaz on August 2, 2012, 13:13 GMT

    i think pakistan and south africa are favourite because they both have WORLD CLASS BOWLING ATTACK...........STEYN,AJMAL AND SO ON.............so best of luck for sa and pak for world cup t20.

  • j on August 2, 2012, 13:12 GMT

    @Selassie, thx mate, it's god to be back separating the kids from the gents. I've always enjoyed the envy that number 1 teams like England beating middle-ranked teams like Australia generates, I find comments pages rather like an interesting psychological experiment, intended to extract and highlight true feelings within a deluge of tantrums and jealousy.

  • sri on August 2, 2012, 12:36 GMT

    @din7, agree with you.@veerakannadiga dont agree with you completely when you said "Laxman contributes once in a while". Check out our away wins and you would find laxman's contribution in all matches where as sachin has been only match saver/record accumulator.

    @pommyadders yes rankings are what they are but is it not fair ? SA to play only few games (max 3 tests in series) when compared to ENG's 5match series (ashes) or India's 4 match series and how many series have they played last 3 years? If they had played more matches i am sure they would have been ranked num 1 long time ago. SA is the only side that has consistently challenged sub continent teams in their own backyards last 3 years (and yes not even Aus sorry RandyOz). And yes I am not saying Eng doesn't deserve num1 ranking. They do They beat Aus and IND comprehensively but just could not meet the expectations of a num1 side just like India. SA looks the most balanced side and we don't need rankings to tell that.

  • Hariharan on August 2, 2012, 12:35 GMT

    SA is the only consistent team in the recent time.. They have good batting and bowling unit. SA deserves the top place in test ranking.. by an Indian fan.... All d best SA...

  • Subha on August 2, 2012, 10:06 GMT

    Someday the zinx will be gone for South Africa. SA will be the top team and it will remain for a long period too.

  • Rayner on August 2, 2012, 9:24 GMT

    Good to see the real Front-Foot-lunge back. Nothing has changed mate - RandyOz is still spurting rubbish! Head and shoulders above the rest, remind me of your recent results against England will you? In fact you just drew an ODI series with WI didn't you?(no disrespect to WI) I would say that these results point to you being head and shoulders above all teams bar SA my friend, expect a thrashing. looking forward to the days play today, these are interesting stats, I hope that they prove true, i'm at leeds on sat, sun and potentially mon so really don't want to see us getting another pounding, or even less a load of rain. SA now have the right man in the coaches job so I wouldn't put it past them.

  • Dummy4 on August 2, 2012, 9:06 GMT

    SA to clinch the series, too much quality in the team both with ball and bat, conditions should suit them, but teamwork and patience is vital. Go Proteas. You can then enjoy the Olympics after this one ;)

  • Blaen on August 2, 2012, 9:04 GMT

    @ veerakannadiga on (August 02 2012, 07:30 AM GMT) That was a very humble comment. Much respect for admitting it! If only other cricket fans could be so humble :(.

  • Neriyan on August 2, 2012, 8:41 GMT

    @Handalf The-Bez:I am a Saffer and proud supporter of our boys. You are right, South Africa may have been able to compete with and even defeat the West Indies from 1970-1975/76. However thereafter from 1975 onwards with the emergence of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, South Africa would have well and truly been whipped. The same as Australia and England. The fact that South Africa was an apartheid state would have only further motivated the likes of King Viv. He would have been merciless. However this is all speculation...we will never know what could have been.

  • Adam on August 2, 2012, 8:28 GMT

    @din7. A little perspective needed mate. The rankings are what they are, over a period of time they indicate which team has performed the best overall. You laud South Africa's away form.......well tell us who have they beaten in that 3 years?? (and be careful, that's your time frame not mine) Time again we hear of SA's unbeaten away record (but they constantly draw series). And what of their home record?? Why is being good away and crap at home better than vice versa??? So much nonsense posted on this board about the No 1 ranked team, the trap posters are falling into is comparing the likes of India and now Eng to the dominant No1's like Aust and West Indies. As an Eng fan I accept we are there by the smallest margin and the reality is there is not much between the top 4 sides. But we are there none the less and until SA win this series (it's not done yet) we remain so. So Mr din, SA are not the best, and wont be until they get there.

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