A year of Kirsten

Graeme Smith and Gary Kirsten pose with the ICC mace Getty Images

On Friday, Joanna Kirsten will turn one. Graeme Smith will be among the first to wish her happy birthday. The rest of the South African team will not be far behind. They may actually remember Joanna's birthday for many years to come because she was born the night before they bowled Australia out for 47 at Newlands.

Gary Kirsten had only appeared at the ground briefly that morning to issue some early instructions to the bowlers, who had Australia on 214 for 8. He left to be with his wife, Deborah, and their new-born daughter and only returned later in the afternoon with South Africa having lost one wicket in their second innings.

"Have we had rain around?" he asked around in the change-room, thinking that play had been interrupted, hence the slow rate of scoring. "No coach, we're into the second dig," one of the players told him before they recounted the story of how only Smith and Jacques Rudolph had managed double figures when South Africa were shot out for 96 but in a remarkable session, Australia were skittled for 47 after teetering on 21 for 9 at one stage.

"It was an interesting day's cricket," Smith remembered. A day so interesting it is unlikely to happen ever again. But it was with that day and two on either side that Kirsten's tenure as South Africa's coach began. A year later, he has been in charge for 11 Tests of which South Africa have won six, lost two and drawn three. It's an impressive run, good enough to get the team to No.1 in the world.

Still, Kirsten's tenure alone does not tell the full story of South Africa's ascendency, nor does it illustrate the actual length of time it took for them to get to the top. Their six-year unbeaten streak away from home is the envy of the cricketing world. That, combined with the level of experience it has given them, has been the real secret to their success.

The record points to two things: the ability to put up with each other for weeks on end and the ability to adapt to varying conditions. The first is probably more important than the second, especially for a squad that has been charged with having navel gazers instead of team men in the past. "When we go on tour, it's almost like we bond more," Dale Steyn explained.

That's where Kirsten came in. Under him, South Africa have had their fair share of connecting with each other. When he was first appointed, about 30 players - some established, some on the fringes - were invited to the Arabella Golf Estate for a three-day planning session. Before the series in England, the squad spent four days in Switzerland with adventurer Mike Horn, learning how to work for each other in circumstances Alviro Petersen said were sometimes "life or death."

Between that though, the squad has also been allowed chunks of time off. Hashim Amla was given paternity leave stretching a few weeks during an ODI series against Sri Lanka in which Steyn and Jacques Kallis were rested. When the Hamilton Test in March ended early, the players dispersed with some of them going to Lake Taupo. Kallis had time off between the ODI and T20 series in England, during which he went to New York to be with his girlfriend and returned more refreshed than ever. Fishing trips are a regular social activity between team-mates.

Creating an environment where the rigours of cricket and relaxation of a normal life go hand-in-hand is how Kirsten sees his role as a coach. "He allows the players do their own thing," JP Duminy said. In other words, Kirsten has entrusted decision-making to the players themselves. It is up to them whether they decide to train and for how long, whether they want to put more effort into the fitness work or not or whether they want to have a night out or a quiet one before match day. Responsibility and accountability lies with them alone.

"There have been a few teams that have touched No.1 recently and we know that is a big challenge. We believe we've got the capabilities to do it but we have also got to earn it." Graeme Smith

Had Kirsten been put in charge of a more junior team, this method may not have worked. Even with the ODI and T20 squad, it has its failings most evident in their inability to make the floating batting line-up work. In the Test squad, though, it has been immensely successful primarily because of its settled nature.

Of the current squad, five players have earned more than 50 Test caps and two others - Jacques Rudolph (46) and Morne Morkel (42) - are not far behind. Compare that with Australia's three players who have recorded a half-century of baggy greens and the experience gap is obvious. With that experience comes knowledge and Kirsten is content that his players have the know-how to conduct themselves in a manner that reflects their years in the game.

From there, the rest has just flowed. Adjusting to conditions is easier when you have players in the squad who have been to those places before. So is winning in a different place. South Africa always travel with someone who has trodden the beaten path ahead of them and draw from that person.

It is a combination of those factors that South Africa think can give them a slightly longer time at the top than the most recent occupants, India and England. India's struggles away from home improved only slightly (in places like New Zealand and West Indies) when they were at the top and England followed up their placing at top of the pile with a poor showing against Pakistan. South Africa are confident they will not be affected in the same way because of their away record. That also includes a series win in Australia in 2008-09 after four defeats on previous tours post readmission and South Africa see no reason that they cannot repeat it.

"We got taught some good lessons [from our previous tours] and it was good to bounce back from that," Smith said. "To come to Australia with a formidable side and know you can compete over here - that was the cut and thrust of playing and performing here."

They also believe they have the personnel - a varied attack, a long batting line-up and the right mix of youth and experience - to avoid being found short on any count as other teams have been. "We would love the opportunity to create a legacy," Smith said. "But you got to take steps one at a time. There have been a few teams that have touched No.1 recently and we know that is a big challenge. We believe we've got the capabilities to do it but we have also got to earn it."

Joanna's birthday will be remembered as one of the most unusual days in cricketing history for what happened in 2011. Depending on whether South Africa can stand up when the wind blows, as Smith has said, it could also be remembered as the day they began a successful title defence. If she is anything like her father, Joanna would probably prefer the latter.