Quiet in build-up, SA prepare for test of character
"We're going to water that pitch right now."
Russell Domingo was in a jovial mood and obviously joking when he made the above suggestion at the end of South Africa's three-day practice match against members on the fringes of the Test squad. Australia are going to use the surface for the next two days, in an intra-squad game of their own to make up for losing their tour match, and South Africa's coach made his jab in jest.
In the end, it would not have mattered what South Africa did to the surface. A typically fierce Highveld thunderstorm broke over Corlett Drive in the late afternoon. Management at the Wanderers warned on Monday that, because of the high levels of the water table given the previous days' downpours, play would not be possible if any more rain fell.
Illovo, the suburb in which the ground is located, remained dry throughout Tuesday and Wednesday and just as South Africa were done, the heavens opened. Whether Australia get on the field tomorrow will depend on how much drainage was able to take place and whether the clouds clear.
The sequence of events, and its apparent bias in favour of the home side, is enough to make anyone chuckle, so it was no surprise Domingo was in such good spirits. His team had had a decent run around, his new No. 4 had scored a century, two of his three frontline seamers had been incisive, and the third, Dale Steyn, was "easing into it and showing the right signs". There was nothing he needed to be concerned about, least of all the jabs coming from the other side.
"We are fully aware a lot has been said and we're fully aware that we haven't said much and we're happy with that," Domingo said. "You can't play all your shots before the Test match, you've got to wait for the game to start."
Australia have been the bigger talkers in the build-up to this series. Their captain declared their attack was the best in the world; one of their leading seamers, Peter Siddle, warned Graeme Smith he could come under attack; and arguably their most aggressive batsman, David Warner, indicated Robin Peterson should prepare for a pasting.
South Africa's responses have been limited to Smith saying they would sift through the "bull dot dot dot", Allan Donald predicting Dale Steyn would be a factor, which is hardly anything new, and Domingo calling Peterson "mentally, one of the toughest cricketers I have worked with".
In their relative silence, South Africa have sent a message - that they will not be pushed around and that they are pretty amused by Australia's attempts to try. "All the noise is coming from them. There's no need for us to get involved in this kind of thing," AB de Villiers said. "We know Australia have had some recent success..."
Then, he stopped himself. "Now I sound like Michael Clarke, 'did South Africa beat India? Really?'" he joked. The journalist who posed the question about the verbal slanging had to ask. "But you know the Ashes result was 5-0?"
"Really?" answered de Villiers with mock incredulity. "Yeah, of course. We've kept an eye but we've also been focused on ourselves. We will do everything we can and that's it. I think we've really peaked in the last two years and we've started playing our best cricket."
South Africa have not registered a home series win against Australia since readmission, last losing to them in 2008-9, a series that de Villiers identified as having come "just before we started playing our best cricket". Their record since then has been flawless. South Africa are undefeated across 14 series and, of those, they won eight. "When we got to No. 1 this time, we really thought we were at a level where we can dominate for the next five or ten years," de Villiers said.
To achieve that, South Africa believe they have to be above their competitors in all respects, including verbal slanging matches. Against Australia, watching their tongues is particularly important to them. "We've just got to have focus and calm," Domingo said. "We can't control what's happening in their camp, what happened with their game or what they're saying."
But what South Africa can do is come up with a plan of their own, which involves a mental strategy above anything else. "To beat Australia, you have to show a lot of character because if they get on top of you, they can be difficult to stop," Domingo said. "They can be abrasive and quite cocky. We will have to show a lot of character under pressure because there will be pressure moments; it's a big series."
So far, that demonstration of temperament has led to South Africa playing a silent role. But they have promised to do their talking on the field. Come Wednesday next week, it will become clearer whose voices are loudest.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent