South Africa's new mindset brings rewards
Over the last year, South Africa have transformed from a squad that could be counted on not to lose, especially over the course of an entire series, to one that can be expected to win when it matters. A gradual build-up of results took them to the brink but it was an added push that tipped them over. Their change from solid to spectacular is what allowed them to become world No. 1.
Their triumph in England - a second, successive series win in the country - is proof that changes have taken place. Some of them are are obvious and have come in the form of personnel. The addition of a third seamer, Vernon Philander, genuinely complements the existing two, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, and has given the pace attack an added dynamic. Meanwhile, although the legspinner, Imran Tahir, has not performed to expectation his mere presence forces a more attacking approach.
An entirely new coaching team is also in place with Gary Kirsten transplanting some of the techniques he used with India, not from a skills perspective but from a man management one. Allan Donald has brought the added intent and Russell Domingo the knowledge of the local game and masterful strategic planning through statistics, which is his forte.
The most important change, though, is the one that does not stick out so brazenly because it has come in the mind, through careful coaxing. To ignore that South Africa stumbles in their own head space would be to think of football without mentioning Brazil. Something held them back like an invisible hand, the force that no-one could quite explain.
It was most evident at major tournaments when South Africa would reach crucial stages and simply stop. It was less apparent in the Test format but still there. The two draws they allowed England to get away with in the 2009-10 series came with Andrew Strauss' men down to their last wicket and South Africa's high quality attack was unable to dislodge it. Take nothing away from the England tail, but those were matches South Africa should have won and may have had they been mentally tougher.
To get there, they needed a different perspective. South African sport was, and in some places still is, conducted like the army in its rigidity and focus to discipline. It was not a space to be creative. It was not a space to introduce too many outrageous ideas. It was not a space to express. It was a space to do as you had been taught because that was the way that would breed success. If they failed, and there were times when they did, it was never the method that was at fault, only the way they were executing it.
While South African sportsmen may have thought that way, all South Africans did not. Unconnected to cricket, Mike Horn, the adventurer, began his first mission. He swam down the Amazon River and when he grew tired of that, decided to hike across South America, a journey that took six months. As he conquered heat, he decided to opt for the other extreme and spent two years and three months in the Arctic circle and another three months in the ice of the North Pole.
For Horn, life was not about how well or thoroughly he followed instructions but about how flexible he could make them. He always sought something more demanding and always wanted to find a new way to handle it. He did it all because he wanted to form a collage of different events, with different degrees of difficulty to be the canvas on which he painted his dreams. "If you don't have any challenges, you don't have experience and if you don't have experience you haven't lived life," Horn told South African broadcaster Craig Marais.
It was that experience of the "other," that the South African team lacked. Playing cricket was about cricket to most of them and occasionally involved a round of golf. When Kirsten took over, he wanted playing cricket to be about more than that.
He started by giving a team that had had their longest winter break in 14 season an inordinate amount of time off. Between the Australia one-day series, which only contained three matches, two of which were spread over five days, Kirsten allowed the squad to disperse. They had been together but a week. In New Zealand, he sent Donald home early while some of the squad went on a fishing trip. Traditional team dinners the night before a Test became a thing of the past as well and in Leeds, Jacques Rudolph was allowed out with his wife and friends and the rest were not subjected to a compulsory squad meal.
Simply put, Kirsten took the schoolmaster mentality away. That type of thinking is what Horn thinks often held South Africa back because it created a false ceiling of how much they could achieve. "We all have dreams as kids and some of the great dreams that we as South Africans have is to play rugby or cricket for the national side," he said. "Once you get to that stage where you get to play for the Proteas, their dream actually stops but that's where it should start because you can only rewrite history from there onwards."
Perhaps the legacy of South Africa's isolationist past, where international sport was not an option for many who are now parents to the children who are playing at a high level, is part of the reason for this. Perhaps it is the effect of always chasing the leaders, instead of leading themselves that has caught up with them. Horn believes the past has a lot to do with it and said his has tried to exorcise the current team of that.
"You have to get rid of all the garbage and baggage that slows you down. I can't teach batting or bowling, but teaching how to be a better team player is my contribution. I try to get the boys to think like one and play as individuals but for the better of the team."
Their camp in Switzerland provided the biggest lesson in that. Gruelling alpine tasks, such as cycling and walking at high altitude for miles, brought them close together. After that was done, Kirsten allowed them to be apart. Even practice sessions were not mandatory because as Alviro Petersen explained, "if you feel you need some time out of the game and that is going to work for you then you must do that."
By empowering his squad with freedom, Kirsten has created an environment ripe to breed accountability and responsibility. Every member of that team knows what is expected of them and knows that if they fail to produce that, and have not prepared in the right way, it will be obvious and there will be consequences. They also know that if they fail to produce but have done everything possible to succeed, it will be part of what Kirsten calls the "process," and eventually it will turn into results.
A year into Kirsten's tenure he would have most thinking he has brainwashed the side to repeat phrases like, "we are not a results-oriented team," and "we are process driven." To the average person those sound like empty phrases, made up to be deliberately obtuse about plans. What they actually are is a sign of the change in the South African mindset to one that is not afraid to fail along the way to ultimate success and that is able to reach higher than it thought was possible previously.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent