England v SA, 1st Investec Test, The Oval, 5th day

Regularity brings rewards

Gary Kirsten has carefully developed the environment for South Africa to flourish, through consistency and togetherness

Firdose Moonda at The Oval

July 23, 2012

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Imran Tahir certainly enjoyed his success, England v South Africa, 1st Test, The Oval, 5th Day, July, 23, 2012
Imran Tahir has been the latest brick to slot into place for South Africa © AFP
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South Africa have had more statistically comprehensive victories over England. Five, in fact. On those other occasions, when they registered innings wins over England, the accompanying number of runs has been greater than 12. We all know the numbers only tell half the story, though.

Only Lord's and Edgbaston in 2008 will stand as more important triumphs over England than the one earned at The Oval. Given what is at stake - and it is not simply a ranking but an affirmation that all the work done was worth it - this win will stand as strongly as the other two. It proved what South Africa have been trying to convince people of all along: that there is power in the process.

History has already batted for South Africa in that regard. Their unbeaten away record, which stretches back to 2006, follows them with the certainty of a shadow and serves as an ever-present reminder of what they are capable of. It has not translated into something tangible enough for South Africa to show off but it has contributed to formidability and created a chain of consistency.

Regularity can be about as exciting as bran cereal but South Africa have found a way to make it watchable. The secret to their consistency is that it is applied over long periods of time and not in short bursts in illustrated by their commitment to the bigger picture. Take the fact that they have not won two consecutive Tests since 2010 - when they beat England in January and India in February - and that the last time they won two back-to-back Tests in a series was against Bangladesh in 2008 and superimpose that on their record of having last lost a series three years ago and the theory will be proved.

This time though, the wide lens had a zoom placed on it in this match as the principles that have been applied in broad brushstrokes were made to fill in finer details. Over the course of four of the five days, South Africa performed to a certain standard and were consistently better than their opposition. Three of their most dependable batsman all produced in the same match to set up the victory but perhaps more impressive than that was the 20 wickets the bowlers managed to take on a surface on which the England's attack could only snaffle two.

The difference in the two attacks, talked about as the best in the world, was startling. Where England could not find any movement, Dale Steyn was able to swing the ball, although he did have cloudy skies and moist air to do it in. Stuart Broad was insipid while Morne Morkel worked to a plan and was effective, Tim Bresnan struggled but Vernon Philander showed why he had an astoundingly successful start to his Test career and Graeme Swann barely turned the ball while Imran Tahir extracted both bounce and spin.

Those technical superiorities say nothing of the presence South Africa had in the field. From the moment Graeme Smith made his brave declaration, through the passage of play when Ian Bell and Matt Prior were causing déjà vu a la Cape Town 2009-10 until the very end, South Africa looked an aggressive and, at times, greedy side.

It was not that they did not make a single fielding blunder - AB de Villiers made four on his own - but that they continued to encourage each other through those moments. The buzz on the field was evident to the naked eye as everyone did their bit.

 
 
"We've spent a lot of time setting up the environment for success and now we feel we can go and play cricket like that on a regular basis" South Africa head coach Gary Kirsten
 

Even Jacques Rudolph, who came nowhere close to batting and whose occasional leg-spin was never called on, had a job. Almost every time one of the bowlers walked to their mark, it was Rudolph who carried their cap and sweater to the umpire. Rudolph put up a picture of him and JP Duminy afterwards celebrating the TFC (Thanks for coming) awards but both of them know they were not really deserving of them.

Inclusion has been important brick in the current South African wall and that is most evident in the way they have managed Tahir. The legspinner came into the squad amid great hype and was expected to produce Shane Warne-esque magic immediately. He did not. Seven Tests later, he still had not. Every time Smith or Gary Kirsten was asked about it they would say that he was a valuable part of their team and they were certain the occasion would come for him to star.

Even today, it did not really come because Steyn's five-wicket haul will be remembered as the spell that broke the English. Tahir's breakthrough in removing Prior may be forgotten to everyone but him. Not only did he obtain just reward for cunning plans that involved using his variations with less frequency than normal, but he opened the gate for South Africa and in doing so has probably finally arrived as an international cricketer.

With every delivery that turned out of the rough, beat the bat or bounced a little extra, he grew in confidence and confidence in him also grew. With one wicket left to get and the ball just 10 overs old, Smith brought Tahir back to take the final wicket. When he did, he brought out the celebration he has to curtail because of new ideology of not placing the spotlight on isolated moments but lighting up an entire passage of time instead. For a few seconds, Tahir forget there was anything else on but that one moment.

"It's been the best five days of his life," Kirsten said. "He is so enjoying playing Test match cricket. I think he is the most enthusiastic cricketer I have ever met and now he is bowling with a lot of confidence and had really begun to understand Test match strategies."

With that, the rest of the attack is growing around Tahir and if that plant is bedded in the same garden as the one in which the batsmen are flourishing, the flowers the bowlers produce will be worthy of a prize at the Chelsea Flower Show. Kallis put is simply. "We are enjoying each other's company and enjoying putting on big performances for each other."

The emphasis was on togetherness, something that seems to have grown since Kirsten took over. "We've spent a lot of time setting up the environment for success," Kirsten said. "We are trying to move away from the focus of individual brilliance, although when someone in your team scores 300 runs you can't really do that and bring that into what we want to achieve for your team. As Hashim said 50 times, it's all about us and I'm excited by that."

He believes that with a united team culture can come even more consistency, the kind that can be applied over a series, as well as over a single match. "We feel we can go and play cricket like that on a regular basis," Kirsten said. "We feel that we can put in good performances daily."

Maybe the three-day trip in Switzerland actually did serve to bond fifteen men who have known each other for enough years not to need a boys' scout session. Or maybe the squad have matured into the kind of unit that can be the best in the world.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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Posted by Ragav999 on (July 25, 2012, 2:46 GMT)

@CDUP: Where exactly did Aussies plummet in the recent rankings? Aus are No.1 ODI side and No.2 Test side. The fact is that even without the best individual performers in Aussie side (in the last 3-4 years) compared to SA & Eng they are managing to stay afloat in the competition for rankings. England and SA fans are proclaiming themselves as the best after years of humiliation and heart breaks against the legendary Aussie team. The Aussies are doing better than expected inspite of some stupid selections.

Posted by Tjoeps on (July 24, 2012, 19:55 GMT)

@jezzastyles...... Nice to see that I am not alone in the comparing of players thru time... Madness! Boyce had a very valid comment that he can only judge players in what they do, and cannot comment on players that he never saw playing... To compare the 70's or even 80's players with the current guys does not work.... Workloads and tours are different, even the way guys play the game is totally different! We need to appreciate players in their era, when they played the game and what they achieved. Ian Botham was brilliant in his day, stats paints a picture but to compare the then and now and decide on who was/is better, impossible.... As for Kallis, he is what he is, under the radar as a bowler, he took out Kevin on Thursday, he had a first spell Friday morning in stringing 4 maidens together and took out Bell, did you read any of that anywhere? That man is awesome!

Posted by Major_Hammad on (July 24, 2012, 18:11 GMT)

Congrates to South Africa on huge victory. Also Congrates to Legend Amla and Steyn specially, Kallis, Smith, Morkel and Imran Tahir also performed very well. England poor bowlers exposed again against quality batsmen and Eng poor batting line exposed again Quality bowlers.

Posted by RohanMarkJay on (July 24, 2012, 17:37 GMT)

Congrats South Africa. I always believed you were the best cricket team in the world in the last 6 years. But was unlucky to reach it. Hopefully they can win this test series and deservedly get number one spot. I really like South African cricketers they are real tryers they give it everything. Greame Smith, Hashim Amla, Kallis Steyn Philander wow awesome team as a cricket fan finally I can say I really enjoy wathcing south africa play. They make Cricket worth watching these days. Also excellent cricket articles from firdose moonda. Very fair and balanced.

Posted by Ragav999 on (July 24, 2012, 17:26 GMT)

@CDUP: Where exactly did Aussies plummet in the recent rankings? Aus are No.1 ODI side and No.2 Test side. The fact is that even without the best individual performers in Aussie side (in the last 3-4 years) compared to SA & Eng they are managing to stay afloat in the competition for rankings. England and SA fans are proclaiming themselves as the best after years of humiliation and heart breaks against the legendary Aussie team. The Aussies are doing better than expected inspite of some stupid selections.

Posted by   on (July 24, 2012, 16:22 GMT)

My attempt at Chris ball gazing shows different results. SA will push Australia down to fight it out with England as to who could be the No 2 test team. Dhoni & Co, don't even waste your time in Chris ball gazing -- you guys are no where in the ball / ballpark!

Posted by   on (July 24, 2012, 16:05 GMT)

As an Indian, I have a request to South Africa. Shall we swap the coaches; we will give you a senior one! No short changing; promise!

Posted by cricketpurist on (July 24, 2012, 14:53 GMT)

The best part of this match was the big crowd which came to see the match on all days. It feels great to watch so much people on TV in attendance for a test Match. C'mon Indians what is wrong with us why do we keep our stands empty on all International test matches.

Posted by thirdmanboundary on (July 24, 2012, 14:26 GMT)

Headingley will be fascinating. Much more comfortable conditions for the English bowlers. But also ideal for Philander in particular. And didn't Kallis take 5 in an innings last time at Headingley? He could be the joker in the pack. Steyn can take wickets under any conditions. And Morkel seems to have grown in both tactical cunning and confidence, even though Headingley conditions mayn't be ideal for his kind of bowling. If SA win at Headingley, Kirsten will go down as one of the great coaches of the modern era, given what he achieved with India as well.

Posted by CDUP on (July 24, 2012, 14:15 GMT)

@Chris Sun SA might be playing England at the moment, but , as a South African, I have to agree with the English on the extreme cockiness of the Ausies on this site. The last test series SA and Aus played was a draw, and before that SA won in Australia and Aus won in South Africa. Please stop jumping the gun as usual, and looking like a fool once the results are in. I would still understand this ridiculous hubris if you have been white-washing SA and England in recent years, but the last time you beat England was 2006, and the last time you beat SA was 2008. Both teams have grown tremendously in mentality and technique since then, so don't count your chickens before they've hatched. There's a good reason Australia have plummeted in recent rankings, and will also lose their ODI no1 spot after the England v SA ODI series. So please... come back down to earth.

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