South Africa in England 2012 August 13, 2012

South Africa reveal No. 1 goal

Gary Kirsten believes his side have made great improvements and are keen to be acknowledged as the best

The admission has finally come. South Africa truly, madly, deeply want to become the world's best Test team.

Everybody suspected as much, given their constant hovering at No. 2 or No. 3 and always being one series win away from better. But no-one could confirm it because South Africa, like every other team that were not No. 1, maintained a stoic stance that rankings did not actually matter.

Maybe they don't. After all, the team ranked top, England, have lost five of the ten matches they have played this year. Their opponents, South Africa, have not lost once in the same period, winning three and drawing three matches, but have not played the same number of matches and are third on the list. The second-best team, Australia, have won more than anyone else in 2012, with five victories and a draw.

The international calendar, timings of individual series and the quality of cricket contribute to debates that the rankings may not present a full picture, except of course, if you are on top of them. Then, you can see what lies below. After years of looking up and around and pretending to be content with that, South Africa have decided that they too want the bird's eye view and know they are closer than ever to getting it.

Perhaps that is the only reason their coach, Gary Kirsten, was willing to talk about how much value teams really place in being ranked the best. "Some people say 'We are not sure about the rankings, do they hold any water?' But deep down every team aspires to and would like to know that they are the No. 1 team in the world," Kirsten admitted.

"We certainly take it importantly as well, as you would in any team. If you are setting goals, you want to be the best and if that's the yardstick that determines you are the best then you take it seriously."

Sticking to the task at hand has been trickier than usual in England. Gaps between Test matches have meant rhythm is constantly broken and although the Kevin Pietersen sideshow has not directly affected the South African squad, it has also been impossible to ignore.

Kirsten and his management team have had to fill the gaps with out-of-the-box activities, like fancy dress parties and dinner with a reality television star. He is confident South Africa have "given ourselves the best chance of success in every game," not only because of the emphasis on alternative style preparation but because of the unit they have been moulded into. "When we execute in the right way, we are a difficult team to beat," Kirsten said.

That may be true for many South Africa teams over the years but holds a different truth for this one. The rest have visited the brink of greatness often but actual greatness was just a door they knocked on and a room they were never let in to. Kirsten seems to believe the current crop hold the key, one he may have given them, although he would never say so.

South Africa now seem to be the complete package. In cricketing terms, their formula of six batsmen, which since Mark Boucher's retirement has increased to seven, complements the three-pronged pack attack perfectly. Add the legspinner and the all-round abilities of Jacques Kallis' and they have an extra edge. It only became enough recently, with a missing ingredient that cannot be quantified exactly, save to say that sprinkling of creativity and excellent identification of resources seems to have been it.

What makes Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel different to pairings of the past - Allan Donald and Fanie de Villiers or Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini - is that they are not just a pairing. They have Vernon Philander. Donald and de Villiers perhaps had too few years together and Pollock and Ntini could have done with a touch more pace at the end but imagine if someone like Andre Nel was as consistent a performer as Philander.

They also have Imran Tahir, who has not had sensational individual success yet but whose presence alone has made an impact. Gone are the days that South Africa's spinner was called on only to bowl the over before tea, to hold up an end or to chew away at time until a second new ball was available. Now, the spinner is someone who can attack on his own, break open a stubborn partnership or eat his way into the tail. He has done so in small instances so far and the confidence the team has in him to do it in bigger ways is evident.

What makes Kallis part of a more imposing batting line-up than he was before is not just that he has the strength of Graeme Smith above him, the style of Hashim Amla next to him and the daring of AB de Villiers below. It is that he has the determination of Alviro Petersen and the promise of Jacques Rudolph and JP Duminy too. Rudolph and Duminy could end up jostling for the same place, if a specialist wicket-keeper is brought in, but for as long as they operate together, they stand as an illustration of the depth of the line-up.

What makes South Africa a better side than they were at readmission, five years after that or even five years ago is that Graeme Smith is cricket's most experienced Test captain. He has led for almost a decade and has just about done it all. That makes him more willing to play what Kirsten called a "brand of attacking cricket which we think is the key to our success". Smith has no reason to fear failure because he has already faced it.

Under him, South Africa's have learnt to adapt to all conditions, which Kirsten thinks is essential to being the best in the world. "Whatever is out there, we've got to deal with," he said. That includes if nothing is out there and South Africa have recently found ways to make something out of very little. Evidence enough was that on an Oval pitch where England could only take two wickets, South Africa managed 20.

"There has been a great improvement in this team in that we can make things happen out there," Kirsten said. "If we are not having a great session, we can turn it around. The team takes a lot of pride in that; it's one of our strengths." It's that sort of strength that turns teams from good to great and South Africa have admitted great is what they are after.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent