SA want ownership of No. 1 spot
Although 2013 holds less daunting challenges for South Africa than the previous 12 months, AB de Villiers sees it as an important phase for the team as they look to establish an era of supremacy. South Africa have seven home Tests and two in the UAE scheduled, contrasting starkly with this year where they competed in nine away matches in three countries and had just one at home.
Their upcoming opponents, New Zealand, Pakistan and India are all ranked too far below them to make any of the contests a battle of No.1, which is what South Africa played for in every series in 2012. Unless South Africa suffer a recession-like slump, the ranking is safe throughout the year which de Villiers hopes will signify the start of their reign.
"The last time we got to the No.1 spot we threw it away like it did not really matter to us," he said referring to the four months South Africa spent at the top in 2009 after Australia lost the Ashes. Then the achievement was more a result of shifts in other teams' positions, although South Africa won away series in England and Australia the season before.
Now there is a feeling of ownership of No.1 because it was earned and defended in 2012. "There is a real sense of care in the team and an amazing team spirit," de Villiers said. "If we can come through this year with solid performances, we've got a good chance to dominate around the world for the next four or five years."
With Graeme Smith deemed to have about that length of time left in his career, Jacques Kallis' niggling injuries the only thing which could prevent him from the same and the bowling unit at their peak, de Villiers thinks South Africa have the personnel to establish a legacy. "We've just got a wonderful team at the moment," he said.
De Villiers has been identified as a key component of that success by Gary Kirsten because his taking over the wicketkeeper role has created an extra spot for a No.7 batsman. Although de Villiers was reluctant to do the job at first and went on record saying he would prefer to concentrate on being "the best batsman in the world," he has since embraced both batting and keeping.
He also said his goals are no longer personal. "I want to be in a successful team that keeps the No.1 spot for a very long time and that dominates world cricket for a very long time. That's what I am after. If I can play my part in that doing that by doing well with the bat and the gloves, so be it."
De Villiers' u-turn was the cause of some consternation because it forced the selectors to renege on a commitment they made to Thami Tsolekile, who had been told he would get a chance to replace Mark Boucher. It also created debate over de Villiers' own ability to bat with the freedom and flair of old while spending hours bending his chronically bad back in the field.
After the England tour, de Villiers suffered a recurrence of his back injury. Coupled with the fact that he had not scored a single half-century since taking the gloves, there were calls for him to give up the role but he silenced those with a classy 169 against Australia in Perth. Although those runs came in the match where de Villiers spent the least amount of time in the field, he said it was an indication that he is capable of performing in both departments.
All it needed, he believed, was time for the adjustment of a dual role. "At first it was tough but I've got into a nice rhythm now," he said. "It took me a while to get into that but now I feel I understand what my role is. I spend time on keeping and batting in training and I don't feel tired after a day's play. I don't feel tired after a Test match. It's more a mental thing than anything else. The fatigue factor is nonsense. It's more a concentration thing."
To keep de Villiers fresh, Cricket South Africa agreed to his request to sit out the Twenty20 series against New Zealand, especially after he complained of tiredness following the domestic one-day cup play-off. De Villiers hinted there will be more of the same in future limited-overs contests, even though he captains in those formats.
"It's all about managing your energy levels and injuries and niggles and also keeping the passion for the game and the hunger to succeed and do well," he explained. "We play a lot of cricket in the year and we are in a situation where we really need to manage it. Some of our guys are getting a bit older and we really have to look after them if we want to maintain the No.1 ranking in Tests."
De Villiers said the break has done him so much good that he is now, "refreshed, energised and hungrier than ever." The Test team have not played in front of home fans since January and the players are particularly looking forward to this summer.
"Playing at Newlands is as special as they come and I'll enjoy this New Year's Test even more," de Villiers said. "We've got a good sense of confidence when we play there. It's almost like we just free up and express ourselves."
South Africa have not lost a Test in Cape Town since 2006 and many of the squad call the venue their favourite because of the large support base there. As proof of that, only 3,000 tickets are still available for the first day of the Test.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent