South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Centurion February 11, 2014

World's best wary of Australia's looming threat

Even though they won't lose the No.1 ranking even if Australia sweep them 3-nil, South Africa still feel they have to justify their status as the best Test team going around

The first few days on top of the world feel like a dream. Over the next few it all sinks in. There is exhilaration and a massive sense of achievement.

As the weeks go by, being the best starts to feel comfortable; normal, even. Once that stretches to months, and if you keep doing whatever it is you need to do to maintain the position, it may seem like no one can ever take it away from you.

Then, somewhere along the way, uncertainty will creep in. Doubt. Nerves. That will happen the day you realise someone is coming up the mountain behind you. That day for South Africa will dawn tomorrow. Glancing down the slope, they've seen Australia looking up at them.

"They've come hunting for us and that's exciting," Graeme Smith said. "Now it's about us showing people why we are the No.1 team in the world."

This is not the first time Smith has emphasised South Africa have something to prove. Even though they won't lose the No.1 ranking even if Australia sweep them 3-nil, South Africa still feel they have to justify their status as the best Test team going around. Perhaps that thought is fueled by the fact that they have not beaten Australia in a series at home since readmission, despite winning Down Under on both their previous visits.

Smith wouldn't go as far as to say winning this series would complete his CV as captain, regarding the away wins in Australia as a "bigger highlight, considering it has been done so few times," but he hinted that the Australia visiting now is not the same as the squad that has been so successful here in the past. "They had an incredible team for a period of time," he said, adding that South Africa have that now. "It's become a big and important phase in our cricket now."

A large part of this new stage of South African cricket has focused on humility. Smith has been careful not to get too carried away with being ranked highest because he believes that is the trick to staying there.

After winning the mace in England and defending it in Australia, South Africa's brand of cricket has changed. They showed ruthlessness in the last home summer when they were victorious in all five Tests and completed all of them in less than five days. They showed resilience when they went to the UAE, where the previous top-ranked side's demise had begun, and bounced back from a hefty defeat to square the series.

Now they are back home with a different task at hand, against an opposition who have always known how to make them feel inadequate, even on their own turf. Overcoming that is the biggest challenge and that, rather than the off-field chatter, is where Smith's focus seems to lie. "When you play Australia, you expect to play a certain way and we don't expect anything different this time," he said. "All the talk, it's all a side show. It's really all about the cricket and that's what we want to focus on.

"The Aussies have been good for ticket sales and newspaper sales. It's been business as usual for us. Behind the scenes, it's been really focused. I sit here today and feel we are ready to go. We know how to win on this ground."

The series starts in Centurion, South Africa's most successful Test venue since readmission, and a place where they feel at home. The surface suits their quicks, and Smith predicted there will be something in it for them again, and if it's warm, as it often is in the summer here, it is also good for batting. They tend to draw a larger than usual and partisan crowd here and the vibe is festive.

It could be the ideal place to kick off if they are to change their home record against Australia. "It's always nice to come to familiar places where you've had success," Smith said. "You feed off past memories and things you've been able to create there."

Australia lost the only match they have played here, in 1997. That won't be too much of a bother for them because their bullishness appears to get the better of everything else. They know they cannot dethrone South Africa in this series but they can make a statement that they are on course to do it in future.

Until they do that, they seem to have admitted where the advantage lies at the moment. "South Africa are a really good team," Michael Clarke said. "They've got a great mix of youth and experience. They deserve the No. ranking, they've earned it."

For all the words uttered over the last week, as this series begins, Clarke agreed that South Africa "are the best in the world." That statement may only make South Africa want to prove it even more.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mashuq on February 12, 2014, 2:19 GMT

    Agreed @amfas on (February 11, 2014, 20:22 GMT) that it will only be a matter of time before Aus. regain #1, but it may be a few years more! Steyn remains key as does Smith to a much lesser degree. But if one focuses on re-building (as Aus. needs to be doing now), Aus. are quite a few good batsmen short of even a decent batting XI. Only Warner and Smith of the current lot will be part of that team. This location of the Big Bash is a major obstacle, as was the kind of wickets on which early Shield games were played. I'll be overjoyed to watch a victory this week, but I'm not counting on it.!

  • SATISH CHANDER on February 12, 2014, 0:49 GMT

    Lets just hope it is not one-sides as the recent Eng - Aus series...Hope its a tight contest with one of them winning the series 2-1

  • disco on February 11, 2014, 22:08 GMT

    Does anyone believe that Smith wouldn't swap one of his away wins for a home win? Ich nicht think so. South Africa will be nervous and if Australia can pick at the cracks left after Kallis' departure, there could be an upset.

  • Helmut on February 11, 2014, 21:32 GMT

    cont'd His replacement in the slips have the potential to bring SA back to the pack more than his replacement as a batsman or bowler, I feel. Think Hashim in Eng, the let-off's he had in the slips and how he cashed in. Ultimately leading to a series victory and the Test mace. Hopefully this guy can slot in next to Graeme with the minimum of fuss. Long term AB should be released from the keeping duties too in order for de Kock to be blooded into the fold. Has the potential to become a truly great player and furthermore it means AB can concentrate just on his batting with the added bonus of gaining an excellent fielder to boot.

    So, although I agree that JK leaves a huge hole, taking the pessimistic view that it will lead to SA's ultimate downfall may be a bit premature

  • Helmut on February 11, 2014, 21:16 GMT

    @amfas JK is a massive loss. Not one easily replaced. How well management and the team do in this series will define whether what your saying will come to pass, but you maybe over-exaggerating a wee bit. As a batsman, Jaqcues can be ably replaced by Faf. No. That is not what I want to say. Faf have shown that he has all the attributes and skill to succeed at #4 longterm. Even if he fails in this series. Then there is still the rest of the top order. Graeme, Alviro, Hash and AB. Unless they all implode at the same time, the experiment with faf at 4 can continue for a while yet.

    Kallis the bowler is tricky. He hasn't done too much bowling of late anyway but he usually chipped in with a couple of crucial wickets when he did. My opinion is to develop JP to become that 4th/5th option.

    Kallis the fielder is where it's at for me. Vern and Dale had their phenominal success because everything was snapped up in the slips. And we all know how deflating a dropped catch can be. cont'd

  • Alan on February 11, 2014, 20:22 GMT

    As an Aussie having lived in SA for almost 40 years I really love AUS vs SA clashes. Head vs heart is a difficult emotion! I have seen both countries produce world class cricketers. I think SA are almost where AUS were in 2006/7 after losing 5/6 players to retirement & we all know what happened there & how long it has taken to rebuild into a competitive unit. No country dominates the centre stage forever & the exodus from the podium is generally preceded by the loss of great names from the game. I believe the loss of JK will impact more than most South Africans would like to admit & would compare his departure to losing 3 great players in one foul swoop. A top batsman, great bowler, & all round brilliant cricketer. SA's dominance will be truly tested and it is their series to lose. Head vs Heart? I truly believe that the result may well see the end of an era for one team & the emergence of a new successor to the throne for the other. If I'm wrong? It will only be a matter of time.

  • VENKATESA on February 11, 2014, 17:31 GMT

    An exciting series on the cards & it would be interesting to see how batsmen of both sides fare, as both the teams have good pace bowling options.., But question marks remain over Australia's batting & SA'a depth in bowling.. I think SAs are heavily reliant on steyn & morkel.. Overall a rivetting series on the cards & whichever team bats better will win the series i guess..

  • Keith on February 11, 2014, 16:44 GMT

    I'm expecting, or hoping for, an exciting see-sawing contest.

    Home advantage and these various "fortresses" will be important though.

  • Amol on February 11, 2014, 16:30 GMT

    A competitive series or not...I would still be watching it. I would take SA bull-dozing AUS ...any day.

  • Khehla on February 11, 2014, 14:17 GMT

    I guess beating Oz @home represents the "Final Frontier" for this SA team. Having grown up in the early 2000s when SA under Hansie would go around the world beating everybody and then come Oz in a match between the best teams in the world they'd come unstuck. That said, this Oz team pales in comparison to that legendary Oz team but even then SA will have to play their best cricket to win against a very experienced team that's in-form. Let the games begin...

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