Top in touching distance for Smith
It looks as though Graeme Smith can barely believe it. Years of being second best could end in five weeks' time in England. It will present other problems, like figuring out how to stay on top, but that's something Smith can worry about another day. For now, the reality that the top is within touching distance has sunk in and the dream of actually touching the top is three Tests away from coming true.
South Africa have walked this road so many times before it has become a circle. They could have become the No.1 team twice in the last two years - if they had beaten India at home in 2010-11 or whitewashed New Zealand away in the three-Test series in March - and both times they fell short. They have been at the top for brief periods, sometimes after big series wins such as in 2008 against England, and other times not of their own doing but because a convolution of other results conspired to put them there.
They would have us believe it does not matter. Gary Kirsten has taught every member of the squad to repeat that rankings don't actually matter to them, but it is a thinly disguised statement. Having always come short, in World Cups and on standings for as long as either have existed, being the best is something that matters dearly to those involved in South African cricket. It will be represent a final coming of age and a completion of something they have heard said about them but have no proof of: that they have it in them to be called the world's top team.
Smith knows that South Africa have done all the hard work in all the right places to put themselves in a position where they can rightfully claim to the best. "We've been really consistent," he said. "In all conditions, it's fair to say, we've been the most consistent team over the last period of time." He's not wrong. South Africa have gone six years and nine series without losing away from home. In that time, they have won in Pakistan, Bangladesh, England, Australia, West Indies and New Zealand and drawn in India, twice, and the United Arab Emirates.
The core of the squad from those trips have remained. Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel were all part of teams that have conquered every corner. The remaining five spots in the starting XI have rotated between opening partners for Smith, different No. 6 batsmen, a third seamer, and Paul Harris, who was in the spinner's position as recently as a season ago.
Some of those have settled now, particularly in the bowling department. Vernon Philander arrived moulded into the third seamer's role as though he was born to do it and Harris has permanently discarded for Imran Tahir. As a unit, Smith rates this bowling attack as the most dynamic he has captained in nine years in the job.
"Morne and Dale are further along with their skills and development from the last time we played England but they still have the same pace," he said. "On a number of those tours, our third seamer was new, whereas Vernon has come in and established himself quite well. With Imran developing really well, there is a lot to look forward to and a lot to work with." The secret to South Africa's bowling success is that those four front-liners do not represent their entire bowling reserves. Jacques Kallis is used in short bursts as an additional, fifth bowler. Smith called it a "massive blessing to have a batsman at No.4 who can bowl the way he does." Andrew Strauss weighed in by saying England have only needed four bowlers to take 20 wickets, Kallis' role is something that could prove the difference between the attacks.
Cruel as it is, Mark Boucher, who was the core of the core until last week, is no longer part of the squad. His exclusion gives South Africa more options for now. With AB de Villiers set to keep wicket until the management have found the right time (read: an easier series) to blood Thami Tsolekile, South Africa can play an extra batsman or an extra bowler or someone who is both. JP Duminy is that someone. With his improved technique in longer forms of the game and his offspin, he becomes the person who could "offer something different" as Smith put it.
South Africa have spent years searching for the "something different" that will set them apart from other teams. They have been criticised for being too predictable, lacking in variety and being a team that can dominate until the big occasion. Now that one of the biggest occasions is upon them, Smith believes they are ready to deliver.
England is no longer the unchartered territory it was four years ago. South Africa have been here and won here. Although the England team they will come up against is, according to Smith, "a better team than they have had for a long time," they face their own demons, which include holding on to that No.1 ranking, "being chased by a pack comes with its own pressure and this being the first major defence of their title," Smith said.
Whether that pressure will make England a more difficult prospect or an easier target is yet to be seen. Either way, South Africa may not even notice. They have prepared for this series with the focus solely on themselves and their processes because they know that what is at stake is bigger than anything they have had to tussle over before.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent