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The year is set to begin with accolades for two of South Africa's favourite cricketing sons. Having got to the top of the rankings, the team's goal is to ensure they stay there
Firdose Moonda at Newlands
January 1, 2013
Features : Can a series of unequals prove to be a contest?
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Series/Tournaments: New Zealand tour of South Africa
When Graeme Smith drove into Newlands Cricket Ground in his white BMW X5 shortly after 9.30am on New Year's Day, he looked like a man who had enjoyed his festive break. The effects of relaxation were written all over his usually serious expression because for the first time in over a decade, Smith spent Christmas Day with his family.
While Smith took the opportunity to enjoy rare time off in the summer, he also used it to reflect on what more he wants to achieve as Test captain. The conclusion he came to was the same one he hinted at from the day he lead South Africa to the top of the rankings: he would not be satisfied with that alone.
In a time when the cricket power base has shifted significantly over small periods, Smith eyes an opening for South Africa to establish an era of dominance. Other members of the squad have said the same and the impression coming out of the camp is that they have their lenses fixed on the bigger picture.
"It's great to sit in team meetings and listen to the guys talk about how they're approaching the year. There is real motivation to be better and not just to sit on our laurels and say we were part of something special and that is enough for us," Smith said. "Everyone wants to be a part of more."
For two players, some of that "more," is likely to come in this Test match. Dale Steyn is one wicket away from joining the prestigious '300-wicket club', of which three other South African bowlers, Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini are already part of. And Jacques Kallis is 20 runs shy of becoming the fourth batsman in the world to amass 13,000 Test runs.
While Steyn is the spark in South Africa's bowling, Kallis is the very heart, mind, stomach and head of the Test team. His own body has begun to feel the effects of 17 years of international cricket but he has achieved more than most ever will in that time.
When the 13,000 comes up, Kallis will be the fastest to the mark in terms of number of matches. Cape Town will be his 159th Test, while Rahul Dravid got there in 160, Ricky Ponting in 162 and Sachin Tendulkar in 163 matches. Kallis would have played more innings than Tendulkar in reaching 13,000 and it seems Tendulkar is the only one Kallis cannot catch. With both Dravid and Ponting retired, there is every chance Kallis could pass them both and finish his career as the second highest run-scorer of all time.
Add to that that Kallis is the only one of the top 20 leading batsmen in the world who can be labelled a genuine allrounder and his status as one of the legends is unquestioned. He has often sailed under the radar with pundits reluctant to call him the best allrounder to grace the game but for Smith and South Africa, he is that and more.
"Everywhere we go now he is starting to get the due that he deserves," Smith said. "We hope that he gets even more. He is an incredible player. I don't think many people understand how immense getting to 13,000 runs is. South Africans will hopefully be very proud of him because he has put South African cricket on the map in a big way. He will go down as an all-time great and we can be proud of that."
That Kallis' major milestone will come on his home ground is fitting. Steyn has reason to feel the opposition is a chosen one. He announced himself as a major force on the international stage against New Zealand more than five years ago when he took 20 wickets in two Tests against them in 2007-08. In perfect synergy, Donald, the current bowling coach and one of Steyn's heroes, also took his 300th wicket against New Zealand.
If Steyn nips out his first victim at Newlands, he will become the joint third-fastest to the milestone. Dennis Lillee achieved the feat in 56 Tests and Muttiah Muralitharan in 58. Steyn will play his 61st match to put him level with Richard Hadlee and Malcolm Marshall.
Although Steyn has copped some criticism in recent times over what some see as waning powers, he maintains that it's more a case of him saving the savage spells for when they are most needed. His ability to swing the ball at pace is still unmatched and Smith will continue to rely on him to step up in pressure situations.
"Dale is our go-to guy and he always seems to make an impact for us," he said. "As a captain, he is a real asset to have because I can throw him the ball and I know he will make a play somewhere in the match. When he gets that bit between his teeth, you really start to see things happening and other guys feed off him."
Though the opposition are unlikely to pique the interest of England, Australia or India, the first two days of the match are sold out and Smith said it's this fixture his men most look forward to. "For us, Newlands is the marquee Test match of the year. It's a great atmosphere and we love playing here. The support that we get here is terrific. People wanting to be a part of this Test match is important to us," he said.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Graeme Smith was the last of South Africa's old guard. The roots of the new one need to grow deeper