November 8, 2012

'An unbelievable feeling of no panic'

Unlike with their predecessors, when the pressure is on South Africa now, the players believe in themselves and their team-mates. Alviro Petersen explains

South Africa's ascendance to world No. 1 will be remembered for feats like Hashim Amla's reord-breaking 311 at The Oval, and Vernon Philander's all-round showing at Lord's. But it was an achievement built on the sort of collective effort that is easy to miss but near impossible to beat. Ask England.

Every time England thought they had found a weakness, South Africa sprouted a new strength. One of those was Alviro Petersen, who went from ugly duckling in the Oval Test (where the other three South Africans who batted got to three figures) to a bird in full flight at Headingley, where he scored 182. The tour helped him secure his role as Graeme Smith's opening partner after Jacques Rudolph couldn't succeed at the top of the order. Since January 2012, Petersen has scored three centuries in each of South Africa's three Test series.

But success doesn't mean there is no pressure. "I love playing for South Africa, but no cricketer is secure," Petersen said. "That's just the way it is. I always try and find a way to play under pressure. Even in the nets, I try to put myself under pressure because I know that in Tests there is going to be pressure."

Performing in difficult circumstances motivates Petersen, and now it is also a driving factor for the South African squad. The players believe that at least one or two among them can make what Gary Kirsten calls "big plays" in key moments.

South Africa's victory in England, according to Petersen, was a culmination of that oft-repeated phrase, "the process", and he explained theirs right from the beginning, when South Africa went on a pre-series trip to Switzerland, an excursion first laughed off as nonsensical and then hailed as genius.

"We got taken out of our comfort zones, Petersen said. "It went so far that we were being explained things about it being a matter of life and death. When we were on the slopes in the mountains, they explained to us that if you slip into one of the crevices, it's impossible to get out and if you slip further down you will probably die. It truly tests you as to where you are as a person within the team."

All that preparation could have easily unravelled by the time the first Test began. The injury to Mark Boucher's eye in the first tour game dealt a huge blow to the side. "It put us on a different emotional path," Petersen said. "We had to decide whether we wanted to continue with the game or to call it off. There was a lot of emotion, but at the same time we had to focus on preparation." By the time South Africa turned out at The Oval for the first Test, they had lost Marchant de Lange and Albie Morkel to injuries.

But when England ended day one at 267 for 3, the South African dressing room remained calm. "They outplayed us that day, although all of us felt that we bowled well," Petersen said. "We knew it would only take one or two guys to really get it back for us, and it started with Dale [Steyn] on day two." Steyn roared back on the next day with two wickets in the first five overs and South Africa took control of the match. "Before the series, Dale wasn't scared to go out there and say that he thought we were the best team in the world, and this was just about showing that," Petersen said. "When the comeback started with him, it gave the guys a lot of confidence and a boost, and from there we never looked back. We dominated."

It didn't bother Petersen that he got a duck in South Africa's reply of 637 for 2. "I was so a part of the team, there was no negative stuff at all. Within myself I knew that it doesn't feel good, but with the team doing so well, it felt like I had scored a hundred."

South Africa's innings victory put the scare in England. "We wanted to try and make them panic and they did that in the second Test, where they left out Graeme Swann and they brought in Steven Finn," Petersen said. The tactic worked in Petersen's favour. Though he said Finn "bowled really well, really fast", Petersen knew it was just a case of batting for a long period of time. "Sometimes when you get to a hundred, you feel like you have done your job. That was when I looked back for a couple of seconds and remembered when I scored a duck and my team-mates pulled me through. It was my time and I didn't want to give it away. I knew that I had to get to 150, because then we would be in a good position. When I got there and went to lunch, I could see the appreciation for what I had done and how I was helping the team."

Kevin Pietersen's 149 helped England draw the Test, so South Africa were surprised when he was dropped for the decider at Lord's, despite controversy surrounding his outburst against the England management at a press conference and news emerging that he had been texting the South Africans about his team-mates. "We were surprised that he was left out because some of us felt they would probably play him and try and sort things out," Petersen said. "The series was on the line. He had just scored 149 and really took it to the bowlers."

At 54 for 4 in the first innings at Lord's, it looked like it was South Africa who needed a miracle innings. The pressure was on the lower order. "We knew that somewhere along the line one of the bowlers would need to play a big innings for us, and Vernon [Philander] did that superbly," Petersen said.

Philander and JP Duminy added 72 to ensure South Africa posted over 300. They went on to set England a tough 346 but by tea on the fifth day the contest was still not decided.

"I've been involved with South African teams where you can see the panic, but that time there was absolutely no panic. It was calm," Petersen said. "There was never a situation where we thought we were going to lose the game. Even though we could have, it was as though we just knew that we were going to win. It was an unbelievable feeling. In a small way, it made me understand why Australia were so good in those years. They always understood that one of them would do the business."

That kind of trust was what many former South African players, like Makhaya Ntini, said they always found lacking in the set-up. Couple that with what Herschelle Gibbs called a fear of failure, which can be interpreted as an absence of self-belief, leading to South Africa being known to be constant underachievers.

That has now changed. "As a team we have more belief," Petersen said. "We are a very tight unit and we just back ourselves. When we went to England, we made no secret about our aims. We said we wanted to be the best cricket team in the world. We didn't just believe, we knew that we would be the best cricket team in the world and that was the difference. Everything we did was just driven towards that."

In South Africa, national unity is also called Ubuntu, a philosophy that explains the importance of community and translates to "I am because we are." It is a concept that is tough to define, and in much of the land it remains nothing but a cuddly myth. In the cricket team, though, it could be a reality. Australia will tell.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent