South Africa find performances from all corners
Gary Kirsten is no George W Bush but, with South Africa leaving New Zealand with all three trophies they competed for, Kirsten had the same the look of satisfaction on his face Bush wore when he delivered his "Mission Accomplished" speech. In Kirsten's first assignment away from home, the team won six matches, drew two and lost one. They dominated everything but the Twenty20 series, in which they squeaked through in the last over, a situation in which South Africa may have faltered in the past.
If there is an overriding gain from the tour of New Zealand, it is that South Africa have confronted two key issues that have stumped them previously. They have started to grapple with the complexities of being able to overcome, rather than crumble, when under pressure. The third T20 is one example of that. Fighting to take the first-innings lead after collapsing to 88 for 6 in Hamilton is another. They also combined to form a strong unit rather than a unit that merely appears strong because of the presence of a few strong individuals. Dale Steyn is not the only person Graeme Smith can throw the ball to if he needs a wicket and Jacques Kallis does not have to carry the batting line-up alone.
Kirsten identified the second of those positives as a particularly important outcome of the tour. "We have a lot of individuals embracing big moments in games and being able to make plays from that," he said. Although overreliance on individuals has not been as glaring in the recent past as it was at a time when everything rested on the performances of Allan Donald and Darryl Cullinan, the team effort has never been as comprehensive as it now.
Performances come from all corners of the line-up, not just the expected ones. A year ago, few would have picked Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers as the two players out of the top six who would not score a hundred on an away tour. In New Zealand, that's what happened. Alviro Petersen, Jacques Rudolph and even JP Duminy, who only played one match, notched up big scores, to support the fine efforts of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis.
Duminy's innings was pleasing for Kirsten because it illustrated the bench-strength of South Africa's batting. "I was very excited about all the fringe players that came in because they made big contributions," Kirsten said. "We have players that we can always turn to if there is an injury, and we can get some experience into the fringe players. That's important going forward so that we can always fall back on these guys, knowing that they can make contributions at international level."
South Africa's bowling depth received the thumbs-up from bowling coach Allan Donald midway through the home season when he took back his initial concerns about the quality of quicks coming through. Vernon Philander has been around for two seasons and was ready to step up. South Africa have also discovered Marchant de Lange, while Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Wayne Parnell have both matured well. Philander's meteoric rise has turned the South African attack from a fearsome one into a nearly unplayable one. Kirsten labelled their performance in the Test series "standout".
Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Philander, complemented by either Kallis and Imran Tahir, or another quick, give away very little. Philander reaped most of the rewards from the miserliness but Steyn and Morkel did not simply operate in his shadow. They rounded off the attack with exceptional use of the short ball and continued interrogation of the opposition. Steyn kept the fire burning with pace, Morkel with the constant reminder of the danger his bounce poses.
Morkel eventually had success in Wellington. Even though Steyn did not record a five-wicket haul in the Tests, he was happy to share in his team-mates' success, telling reporters that there are only 10 wickets to go around in an innings and he doesn't mind who takes them. The attack operate as a unit, the bowlers celebrate each other's wickets, and work together to create wicket-taking opportunities without putting too much emphasis on who claims the eventual scalp. It sounds twee, but Kirsten insists there is a lot of togetherness.
"What's happened is that we are really starting to operate as a batting unit and as a bowling unit. Guys feel like even if they don't get big wickets on the day, they have made a contribution. There's a real sense of team-ness."
Kirsten's man management has contributed to that unity. He allows players freedom, be it to express themselves on the field or to enjoy time off during the tour. In so doing, he has gained their trust and their commitment. "With the amount of cricket that we've got coming up, it's important that we maintain freshness, mental and physical," he said.
Kirsten has been in charge for 10 months and three series, and his ideas are starting to take root. His philosophy is based on process and it seems the South African squad have bought into that. They have accepted the big-picture vision without sacrificing the attention to detail that will ultimately, as Kirsten explains, ensure they win more than they lose.
This strategy served them well in New Zealand and has readied them for their next challenge, in July against England. Kirsten is satisfied that South Africa are in a comfortable enough position to embark on that tour with confidence. "We've taken the steps that we needed to in terms of being ready to go and confront England. I'm happy with where we are and where we are going."
Edited by Dustin Silgardo
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent