Smith wants winning mentality
In the course of a year, a team usually has enough time to try out a new strategy, develop certain aspects of their game and consolidate others. But, when that team has only played three Tests in 11 months, it's unlikely they have managed to work on any of that. Remarkably, South Africa, who play their fourth Test of 2011 against Sri Lanka in Centurion from Thursday, have already managed two of the three.
Despite a shortage of Test cricket, they have introduced an attacking spinner in Imran Tahir, found a third seamer in Vernon Philander, and changed the make-up of their opening partnership to include Jacques Rudolph. In the next 12 months, South Africa will play ten Tests, including tours of New Zealand, England and Australia and so it is the third item, consolidation, that they will be looking for in upcoming contest with Sri Lanka.
"Instead of stringing two out of three good sessions together, we should be able to manage three out out of three," Graeme Smith, South Africa Test captain said. "That's one reason why we probably haven't gone on to beat teams recently. Hopefully, we can start stringing a whole day together."
South Africa have not won a home series since 2008, despite coming close against England, India and Australia. One of their most obvious problems has been the inability to polish off the opposition tail, leaving them without the results that are expected from a team of their calibre.
"We've played some really good Test cricket, especially at home, but we just haven't really had that killer blow," Smith said. "We've been, in many ways, neither here nor there. We've been successful but we haven't really had enough in terms of getting over the line, so this series is a combination of gaining confidence in our play and playing winning cricket."
Such an introspective approach to a series usually only occurs when the opposition have been written off but Smith was careful to say that South Africa will not treat Sri Lanka with any disrespect. "We've all played enough cricket to know that if we don't give things the right amount of mental attitude and concentration, we can easily slip on that banana," he said.
After a wretched year in Test cricket, Sri Lanka are considered as weaker than have been in the recent past. They are a team in transition and South Africa are unfamiliar with most of their squad. But they still bring some of cricket's biggest and most feared names, such as Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Ajantha Mendis and Smith said South Africa will target those players. "A lot of their players are unknown but they've still got some key players who've been around for a long time. How we perform against those players is going to be a key factor in the series," he said.
Two of the facets of South African performance that will come under scrutiny are the opening partnership and the wicket-keeping role. With Jacques Rudolph and Alviro Petersen both in the squad, the selectors have indicated that the duel for the spot is still on. Smith hinted that Rudolph will likely remain in the role but admitted that he is under some pressure to hold on it.
"They've both got great records, they both understand their games well but Jacques is the man that has the opportunity now," Smith said. "You want to give him the best chance to make use of that. The one thing that Alviro has done well is that he has kept knocking on the door and that's what we want."
Mark Boucher also faces a litmus test as he approaches the end of his career. He failed to contribute with the bat against Australia and will have to use the Sri Lanka series to rectify that. Smith said Boucher has prepared well to meet his critics. "He has had a calm focus about him this week. At the Cobras, he has worked hard on his batting. He has looked good in the nets and I hope all the hard work he has put in over the last few weeks will pay off," he said.
Although Boucher is under the most pressure to produce, Smith said the same expectation exists in the rest of the squad. "It's that stage of the season where everyone is looking for a performance and a bit of confidence."
South Africa's international season began with a curtailed two-test series against Australia, after which most of the national squad were on a break. Most of them played only a match or two for their franchises in the one-day cup but they have not had any four-day or regular cricket in the lead up to the series. Essentially, their summer starts now.
"It's exciting to get your teeth into a proper Test series," Smith said. "It's been a very disjointed season so far for us. For us as a team, we now have the opportunity to get stuck in for a month and a bit and hopefully get some good momentum in the way that we play and get some confidence in our positions."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent