Kirsten sees broader landscape from NZ series
Gary Kirsten's first away tour in charge of South Africa was to New Zealand earlier this year. It was an opportunity to claim the world No. 1 ranking - which would have required a 3-0 series sweep - but Kirsten had other things to think about. For him, it was the time to entrench his philosophy away from the pressures of a prying home media and parochial fans.
The trip was the first of three major blocks of time on the road in 2012. The two to come, against England and Australia, would require a certain robustness. Kirsten used New Zealand to toughen the team up by being softer than anyone would have expected.
While they prepared for the Test series, he ran a marathon. After they won in Hamilton with days to spare, he encouraged them to enjoy New Zealand's natural wonders. The South African squad went to Lake Taupo and the Waitomo Caves. Previously they spent free time holed up in soulless hotel rooms playing video games - ask Mark Boucher and Herschelle Gibbs who once boasted that they spent 13 hours doing exactly that. Kirsten opened doors other South African management ignored.
Allan Donald was sent home before the final match, to allow him time off in what was dubbed "a heavy year of travel". It was in that same fixture that South Africa were troubled - by an injury to Jacques Kallis, the resilience of Kane Williamson and Kruger van Wyk and the weather - but it was also one where they came out strongest, not in result terms but in character.
Kirsten said so himself. He was pleased with the way the then-fringe player JP Duminy who had to step in to Kallis' place scored a century. He was equally satisfied with the coming of age of Morne Morkel who took all six New Zealand wickets by relying on control as much as aggression. "There's a real sense of team-ness," Kirsten said. "We've taken the steps we needed to be able to confront England."
New Zealand was the blank canvas. Once South Africa got to England they had intricate plans drawn and when they reached Australia those plans were coloured in. So far, that exercise has paid off despite the changes that have been made to the Test XI because the broad approach has remained the same: prepare meticulously, don't work harder than is necessary and be ready to make big plays.
Having got all of that right, they face New Zealand again; and again the opposition will be used to plan for the year ahead. "We will play 10 Test matches in 2013 and New Zealand is an important stepping stone," Kirsten said. Although a much lighter year, especially in terms of travel, South Africa have home and away (most probably in the UAE) series against Pakistan and then host India.
The No. 1 ranking will probably not be at risk of being snatched away but both teams from the sub-continent will pose a different challenge to what South Africa have handled over the last 12 months. Technically and tactically, New Zealand are not the right guinea pigs to prepare them but in terms of match practice and habit-forming, they will do as well as anyone else.
Kirsten believes those two factors are the basis for South Africa's string of victories and hopes to continue developing them in the upcoming series. "The success of our team in 2012 was that we remained humble in our play," he said. "We didn't take any situation or any team for granted. We made sure that our preparation was spot on and that when we got into Test match time, we set up solid foundations to give ourselves the best chance of success."
They view the upcoming series against New Zealand as part of a broader landscape. Being complacent will not be an option, neither will being arrogant, even though South Africa are the clear favourites. "We take every match we play representing the badge very seriously," Kirsten said. Evidence of that is in the training schedule: South Africa have five practices lined up before the match starts on January 2, many more than usual.
It may be because a series against New Zealand gives South Africa the opportunity to improve their record at home. South Africa last lost an away Test five series ago in February 2010 in Kolkata but they have lost a match at home in every one of the last five series they've played there. The previous time they went unscathed was against Bangladesh in 2008/09.
But Kirsten does not see it that way. "The guys look proudly at their away record. The success of this team is based what we do every day so whether we are home or away, doesn't matter." It's a cold, clinical explanation and one New Zealand may bear the brunt of.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent