Kirsten focussed on thorough preparation
"We will not be scared of conditions and we will not be scared of what's dished up at us. We feel we've got enough skill in our team to be able to handle all conditions." If you close your eyes when you hear those Gary Kirsten sentences you can almost picture him saying them to a national team.
Not the one he now coaches, but the one he led to, among other achievements, a rare series win in New Zealand three years ago, India. He must have stood at the centre of the huddle, his schoolteacher frown firmly in place and the forefinger on his right hand pointing vigorously, issuing something similar to that instruction.
On Monday afternoon in Dunedin those words were said in relation to South Africa. New Zealand is hardly as different to them as it would have been to India but Kirsten's meticulous attention to adjustment will ensure that South Africa are prepared for anything. Their goal, although Kirsten won't explicitly say it, is to whitewash New Zealand to become the world's top ranked Test team and the only way to do that is to go in prepared.
"The concern, as it always is when you are coming to foreign conditions, is how quickly you can be ready and how quickly you can prepare," Kirsten said. "We know that in the first game if you have one bad session you can get yourselves into trouble very quickly. From a mental perspective we want to make sure we are ready for the start of the game and that we are not caught napping."
Superficial as it may sound, one of the most important things to get ready for, according to Kirsten, is the weather. Cricketers, especially South African cricketers, are used to playing in summer. Dunedin in March is closer to a Johannesburg winter. "I remember playing my last Test match here [in New Zealand] and it was 9 degrees on the last day. Getting used to that is not easy," he said, almost shivering at the thought. "We can talk about it but you've actually got to go out there and feel it to understand. And then, to know that you can make performances in those conditions."
South Africa will spend two days training in the chill to get used to the weather and keenly observing preparations for the pitch, which Kirsten saw for the first time in the middle of his press engagement. He grinned when asked if it looked different to what he had expected. A one-word answer, "Ja," confirmed that it did.
Although New Zealand seemed headed in the direction of greener pitches, the surface at the University Oval is a smooth brown and talk of slowing it down as much as possible is rife. It's a tactic that would leave New Zealand's batsmen less vulnerable to South Africa's fiery fast-bowlers but would also somewhat negate their own four-pronged pace attack.
Whatever the colour of the strip, Kirsten said South Africa will concentrate on the "processes," a new favourite buzzword in the team. It's a short way of saying that the No. 1 ranking is what they are after and all the Test cricket they play will be focussed on achieving that, just like every other team. The difference for South Africa is that they are closer than the majority of other teams and could be named the top-ranked Test side by the end of the month.
Instead of focus on the three wins they will need to get there, something which Kirsten and his team will be acutely aware of, he said they will ignore the short-term results. Instead, they will target victory, but in an indirect fashion, according to Kirsten. "We want to win games of cricket, obviously, anyone does because that's how you get measured," he said. "We know that if we do certain things right through a Test match, we will win more games than we lose."
Concentrating on those things, rather than anything the opposition does, is what Kirsten believes will allow South Africa to do that. He is drumming into his charges the introspective approach and advising them to work within their means, because that will be good enough.
"We know what our strengths are and we feel that if we can really play to our strengths against any team that we come up against, we are going to be a tough team to beat," he said. "It's been a great tour for us so far. We've played better as the games have gone along. It's a new format and we need to make sure that we are mentally ready and up for this new format."
Edited by Siddarth Ravindran
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent