South Africa aim for new script
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.
"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