Smith sets off on No. 1 mission
There's a particular type of excitement which accompanies a departure. It may be hope for something better on the other side, curiosity of the unknown or anticipation to try something new. In the case of the South African team, the overriding feeling when they left Johannesburg on Monday was determination to complete a mission they have been building up to for months.
Victory over England in the Test series will see South Africa ranked the No.1 Test side. It's a position that has been within reach but just out of their grasp, for almost as long as the rankings have been around. Briefly, South Africa touched the top, for four months in 2009 after their first successful tour to England since readmission. Graeme Smith hopes that this time they can repeat history and make it count for longer.
"I don't think we need much more motivation to beat England," Smith said, at the team's departure press conference. "We've come close to the top of the rankings for a period of time. We're hoping this will be the year that we can take ourselves to the next level."
Some will argue that no team deserves it more than South Africa. They have proved themselves in all conditions, having not lost away from home since 2006 in Sri Lanka. At home, they overturned a three summer drought by beating Sri Lanka in January. They have the world's top bowler, Dale Steyn, in their attack and even though they do not own the top-ranked batsman and allrounder (Jacques Kallis recently lost that spot to Shakib Al Hasan), they've regularly had players in the top 10.
South Africa have been in this position before. They have left for World Cups with massive public pressure and a favourites tag only to return empty handed. Despite winning important Test series in places where few have left with anything besides bruised egos, like Australia, they have not been able to top the standings for any sustained amount of time. Now, they want it to be different.
"We want to become the best cricket team in the world," Gary Kirsten said, but quickly qualified that he kept that as nothing more than an end goal and was something that occupied his day-to-day planning. "What we need to do every day leading up to those performances is what's important. We make sure we prepare as best we can to get our best chance of success."
To get ready for this tour, the squad will spend five days in Switzerland with adventurer Mike Horn. Instead of extra net sessions for players who have not been involved in the longest format of the game since March, Kirsten has decided to concentrate on human dynamics. The camp will include activities cricketers are unfamiliar with, such as cycling in the mountains, in the hope it will promote a culture of community.
"We want to make sure that we are connected as a unit," Kirsten explained. "On this tour, it may well boil down to crucial moments in the Test series. And we want to make sure we are prepared for that."
The mental focus has always been an area of concern for South Africa and under Kirsten the focus on togetherness seems to be what will be used to help overcome the usual lapses. Smith even alluded to it when he discussed the less talked about aspect of the series, the batting. "It's more exciting to talk about guys who can bowl at 150 kph, than about stodgy opening batters," he said. "But it is a crucial part; putting runs on the board. It's all about partnerships. The top six need to be really tight and perform well for each other."
Smith expects that England's strength as a unit will also shine through and is preparing for a different sort of psychological pressure to what South Africa are used to. "They've proven over time that they are a methodical, well-drilled team," Smith said. "They'll be battle hardened. They play the game hard and no-one wants to give an inch."
Pressure will be applied from all sides, with Smith saying he can already feel the "buzz" from the South African public, who have waited many years to see their cricket side dominate. "You can feel how much that means to the fans," he said. "We go there with the priority to perform well."
South Africa's sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, also expected big things from the side. He was there to bid them farewell and issue some instructions. "A visit to England is the absolute highlight of any cricketer's career. As South Africans, we expect them to maintain their proud record there," Mbalula said. "The Zimbabwe shame in the tri-series should be forgotten as we place ourselves to break hearts in the Queen's land."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent