South Africa v India, 1st Test, Johannesburg December 17, 2013

An insight into South Africa's sanctum

South Africa's dressing-room environment is said to be at all time high and the current crop of players credit a team culture based on respect, friendship and family-values for much of their recent success

There was only one other place Ricky Ponting felt that had the same team spirit he experienced when Australia won the World Cup in 1999: the South African camp of 2012.

"In Ricky's book, he said when Australia won their first World Cup, the team spirit was at its greatest and that was never recreated," Graeme Smith said. "What he felt at that stage, Ricky said he felt in our change-room when we won in Australia last year. It was something he knew was special because he had seen it in Australian cricket for a while."

The dressing-room environment is the least public but most telling barometer of a team's health. South Africa's is said to be at an all time high. The current crop of players credit a team culture based on respect, friendship and family-values for much of their recent success, but few ever get to see what goes in their private work area.

Two days before the Wanderers Test, some supporters got a rare glimpse of the room at the top of the tunnel. Graeme Smith, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Jacques Rudolph and Paul Harris hosted a group in the Bullring's home change-room.

Fresh from a practice session, the area was littered with kit. JP Duminy's bats were stacked up, AB de Villiers' boots were on show and thigh pads were strewn across the floor. The only person's area that was relatively organised was Jacques Kallis' and the guests were asked not to touch anything. "He is very picky about his stuff," Harris informed them.

There's nothing fancy about the actual space. The walls are lined by wooden-paneled lockers, there are benches in the middle and one flat-screen television overhead. A short walk down some stairs leads to an adjoining room where there is a fridge - only half-filled with a selection of soft and energy drinks - and an inter-leading door to the bathroom. The most attractive part of the place is the balcony, from where the players observe the on-field activity. "This is a work space," Smith clarified, perhaps for those who were expecting a little more.

The life of a dressing room comes from its inhabitants and the culture they choose to infuse it with. South Africa's is a balance between strict rules and occasionally bending them for fun. The one thing that never gets messed with is the over-riding order of things.

Everyone has a set place in any change room. Vernon Philander pointed out the preferred positions at the Wanderers. Smith's is first on the right-hand side, closest to the stairs. AB de Villiers is at the back. Next to Smith is Faf du Plessis, who once made the mistake of trying to claim territory that wasn't his.

"We were playing at SuperSport Park and Daryll Cullinan was our coach. He had the locker next to the captain but Faf decided he would sit next to the captain because he was trying to be a head-boy," Harris said. "Needless to say when Daryll found out whose stuff was there, Faf got crapped on from a dizzy height. There is a hierarchy in the change room as there is in the bus. In the bus, four seats to the left is Kallis and that's the way it is."

Someone else who maintains rigid rules is Neil McKenzie - the man to whom the Wanderers dressing room has been home for the better part of two decades. McKenzie's international days are gone but Smith spent many a year with him at that level and remembered the obsession McKenzie had with order.

"There was a Test match in 2003 and we had the usual minutes to pad up. That time is always hectic for openers. You have to get out of your fielding gear and into batting gear and get your brain ready," Smith said. "Both Neil and I are sponsored by Gunn and Moore and I remember him taking out his pads and he touched the 'o' on Moore. Then I saw him packing his kit up and zipping it and starting all over again. He said he didn't want to get a 0."

While the change room was a private space for McKenzie to indulge in superstition, for others it's a safe space to vent frustration. Smith said there are certain players "you have to slide away from" when they get out, and Mark Boucher was one of them. "We were playing at Eden Park and I had just got out and I was un-padding. Bouch got out straight after me and also came into the dressing room. He lobbed his bat, maybe not that hard, but because they had dry walling, his bat went straight through and left a hole in the wall. He had to end up paying for the change room to be repaired."

South Africa's angriest cricketer at the moment appears to be Steyn. Whether it's an on-field tantrum, a barrage of words or just the evil eye, Steyn can scare anyone. Harris confirmed his temper has let him down in the past. "Dale is a bit of an axe-murderer and when he does snap, it's chaos," he joked, before Steyn insisted on taking over the story because "Haromat," as he called Harris, a nickname referring to the seasoning Aromat, "spices everything."

Steyn recalled his time at Warwickshire when he "went through a phase of 40 overs without a wicket." Eventually he thought he had one. "I nicked this one guy off and he was given not out. While I was appealing when I saw he was given not out, I just carried on running straight back to the change room. In there, they have a gym and a section with stretch mats and a punching bag.

"I was so angry, I just wanted to punch this punching bag. There was a stump there so I thought I would take the stump and knock the s**t out of the punching bag. Harro and all of them were watching it. I ran up to this this punching bag but I had my spikes on so I fell flat on my ass and everyone laughed at me."

Ultimately, good times are what the South African dressing room has become about and with their successes, especially in the Test format over the last 18 months, there are good times to be had. At the end of a series, whether home or away, the team likes to spend the time celebrating with their loved ones.

With most of the current South African crop having moved out of the bachelor phase, they have tried to make their set-up accommodating to families. Smith remembered Gary Kirsten telling him stories of the wives and girlfriends staying in a separate hotel and "guys sneaking out at 10 at night to visit them," and said "a more modern mentality," prevails now.

Partners travel as often as possible and they are involved when the team wins. "We have a time when the family comes and joins the team after a big match," Smith said. "Our families sacrifice a lot so we try as much as possible to get them involved with what we are doing. After a game they will come in to the change room, have a drink, the kids will run around and play and then the guys have an hour or two to themselves."

The opposition is also welcome to join. Australians and South Africans are known to share post-match celebrations with Smith mentioning Adam Gilchrist and Brett Lee as two people who always went around for a drink "no matter what the result." Steyn has become friends with Brendon McCullum and Virat Kohli over time while Rudolph has formed a bond with Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jawaywardene.

Sometimes they even exchange shirts, like footballers "You go through stages where you collect memorabilia. I have stuff that guys personalise," he said. Smith has shirts with messages from Brian Lara, Viv Richards and Michael Vaughan in his home as well as the bats he used to score the double-hundreds in England.

Apart from Kallis, Smith has occupied the South African change-room the longest and in different roles. He was a youngster only briefly before becoming captain, and more recently he has given up the leadership in two of the three formats. Because of that, he has seen the dressing room with different eyes in the ODI set-up.

"Initially it took me a bit more time to find my feet but I've realised I've got a lot more time to mess about when I am not captain," he said. "I can have a bit of a longer lunch because I don't have to walk out to the toss while everyone is doing their thing and I have some more time to interact, chill out and enjoy the company of my team-mates."

According to Steyn, there is much to enjoy. Morne Morkel is "the clown," of the group. Whether he is taping extra pieces onto the back of his shoe to not bowl no-balls or putting on the wrong shoes - De Villiers' in one case because there are sponsored by the same company - he gives them reason to laugh.

South Africa have become the type of group Ponting associated so closely with success. They treat each other as people first, and team-mates, colleagues and competitors for the same spot in an XI second. Even Rudolph, whose hopes of being part of the group now must be gone, has reason to feel comfortable around them. An hour in the Wanderers change room explains why.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent