SA preparations come full circle
With South Africa's preparation for the final Test in the series against England almost complete, they have called on a special assistant to add the finishing touch. Explorer Mike Horn, famous for his solo full circle of the globe without motorised transport, has joined up with the camp in London to complete a journey that began at his home in Château d'Oex, Switzerland, before the tour began.
The squad spent four days with Horn before arriving in England on an excursion that was focused on gaining mental strength through physical exertion. Their challenges included cycling up Alpine slopes, hiking for miles and skiing. Although they will not be doing anything similar with Horn this time, his presence will serve as motivation as they approach the match that will determine whether they are crowned world No.1.
"He is an inspiration for us, he played a big role in our preparations before the tour and he will no doubt add value to our current team environment," Gary Kirsten, South Africa head coach, said.
Horn and Kirsten are friends who have worked together before, most notably during India's 2011 World Cup campaign, which ended in victory. The Indian squad did not shy away from crediting Horn with helping them believe they could achieve and Kirsten is hopeful he will have the same effect on the South African side.
"I can't come here and teach the players how to bat or to bowl," Horn admitted. "I am here to bring something away from the game. They have proven that they are a better team than before. There is a good ambience in the camp and the players are looking forward to performing better as a team. I'm not going to say much, I think my presence will say a lot."
Horn's impact on the changes made to the South African mindset are obvious. Jacques Kallis referred to it as simply a "very positive frame of mind," but it is more complex than that. There is a sense of confidence that did not run as deeply as before. Even Mark Boucher, the toughest, hardest member of the squad whose retirement was forced in the first match at Taunton after a horrific eye injury, admitted he had never been so severely challenged as he was in Switzerland.
Along with Boucher, other members of the squad called the camp the toughest few days of their lives. Dale Steyn remembered the a day when they scaled a 3,300-metre peak, which included a rope climb and an ice-field which exhausted most of the squad but left Horn looking like he had "just pitched up home after a stroll in the park".
The day did not end there as Horn then led them to the top of a 750-metre peak, on an uphill cycle for 7 kilometres. "Players used every swearword in the book, until they were too exhausted to swear… and there was still more to climb," Steyn wrote on his blog. "I had never been so physically exhausted in my life. But I was in Mike Horn territory, so I refused to get off my bike, refused to rest, refused to walk. I found reserves that I never knew I had.
"AB de Villiers said that he had never been that exhausted before and that he pushed harder than he had ever had in his life. He now knew he could do more than he believed."
A lot of the rhetoric the team squad has sprouted since that trip has been of a similar nature. It sounds contrived and candyfloss but the expedition to the Alps appears to have made a major difference to the South African mindset. Often criticised for collapsing at the crucial moment, South Africa have shown displays of fortitude in the series so far.
After a lacklustre start on the first day at The Oval, they returned to knock England back on the second morning and then batted them out of the match. When it looked like Kevin Pietersen was going to seize the series back for England at Headingley, South Africa returned to remove him swiftly the next morning. Having arrived in England with the mantra that winning crucial moments will win the series, South Africa have done that so far.
Their most crucial moments await at Lord's. Having Horn on the balcony to remind them of the things they have already conquered is what South Africa hope will spur them on to triumph in their biggest Test to date.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent