South Africa sense 'something special'
There is a thrill that comes with being on the edge. It is a mixture of exhilaration in knowing that something potentially amazing awaits and fear of the possibility of falling off.
South Africa have inched closer and closer to that edge in their quest to become the No.1 ranked Test team in the world and now they find themselves right on it. In less than a week, something they have worked toward for years could finally come together. And they don't even have to win a match for that happen.
All South Africa need to do is the thing they have become almost flawless at doing for the last six years: not lose. In six years, since Sri Lanka 2006, South Africa have not been defeated in a series away from home. Whatever the result of the Lord's Test, that record will remain intact. But if the result is either a draw or a South African win, the record will sprout some bells and whistles and it's those sounds that the players are starting to hear.
"I'm pretty excited about Lord's," Dale Steyn, South Africa's premier fast-bowler, said. "Gary Kirsten mentioned the other day that we are on the brink of something special. In a few days' time we could be the number one Test team in the world. He said we should enjoy this time because this is what we've worked for."
Since Kirsten took over last June, this is the most excited he has allowed the team to be. One of his first acts was to promote a mood of stability. Wins and losses were treated with fairly similar feelings, there was no over-celebration for the former and no deep disappointment of the latter. All of them were part of a "process," a word Kirsten has used to often it has become nauseating to listen to.
The actual details of the process have not been revealed to those outside the dressing room except to say that it does not end in England, irrespective of whether the No.1 status has been achieved or not. It seems obvious that some part of the process will be completed next week at Lord's and the sense of anticipation has become too big to simply file away and Kirsten is allowing a little more than expression.
Not too much, because when Steyn was asked whether there was a feeling that something special was around the corner, he immediately reigned in his thoughts. "It's weird. We're just in a really nice groove and in such a good environment that we haven't had too much pressure. Everybody seems so up for it.
"Guys know what their job is. There's a lot of trust. If we go on and win then in a month, two months after this, maybe in a year, we might sit back and say maybe we should have had different feelings. But we're 1-0 up with one game to go and I'm not going to change the way we do things."
Consistency has been a major advantage to South Africa in this Test series, highlighted perhaps by the chaos in the opposing dressing room.
England have had their first-choice No.6 batsman, Ravi Bopara, pull out because of personal reasons and had to replace him with a debutant. They have also the person many consider their best player, Kevin Pietersen, embroiled in a text message controversy and were forced to drop him and bring in someone who has not fared well in his previous international encounters, Jonny Bairstow. They changed their attack, leaving out a spinner for the first time since 2003 and it did not work and their bowling attack cannot seem to find the venom they once had.
By contrast South Africa have seemed serene. Their big guns, Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn, fired in the first Test. Then one who struggled, Alviro Petersen, was their standout player of the second Test. Their biggest worry has been Imran Tahir's no-ball issue and he may have rectified that, having not overstepped once during the two-day match against Derbyshire. While England have to iron out dressing room creases, South Africa have had endless bonding sessions, starting in Switzerland and most recently having dinner cooked by the country's first Masterchef winner.
They are, as Graeme Smith told ESPNcricinfo before the series started, at peace. Ironically, that means their killer instinct has never been sharper. Even though they have the option to play defensive cricket and hold on to their 1-0 lead, they do not want to do that. Steyn gave a guarantee that they will go for the win at Lord's, the same way they did at Headingley when Smith declared and put England in on the final day and later confirmed he did it with the intention that South Africa could for the win.
"If the weather wasn't around I reckon we would have been in a better situation," Steyn said. "A draw is not in our eyes. We've come out here to play good, attacking positive cricket. It's the way we want to play and we are definitely going for it at Lord's. It just shows Test cricket is definitely alive and that this current South African team is trying to push for it."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent