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South Africa upbeat as they begin journey into their final frontier

England has been the place where they wanted to win the most

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Class of 2012: South Africa pose with the Test mace  •  AFP

Class of 2012: South Africa pose with the Test mace  •  AFP

It was almost ten years ago to the day that a grinning Graeme Smith held the ICC Test mace aloft, after South Africa beat England in a second successive home series and became the top-ranked Test team in the world. At the risk of stating the obvious, Test cricket felt a little different then.
Even though there was no World Test Championship final to work towards, and no hundred-ball competitor claiming eyeballs and column space, Test cricket and especially Test cricket in England, felt like the final frontier. Especially for South Africa.
They had been building up towards that series since 2007, when they made it a goal to start winning more away from home. They beat Pakistan, then Bangladesh, then England and then Australia. In between that, they drew twice in India and had worked themselves into a position to compete for the No. 1 spot. They took that challenge so seriously that they spent time in the Swiss Alps in preparation, learning to trek through treacherous conditions. It was a metaphor for what they would encounter in England, and beyond. These days, there's no time (and if we're honest, no budget at CSA) to embark on such daring escapades. The cricket calendar is relentless and things like trekking and skiing have been replaced by such importances as new T20 league team names. For reasons of volume alone, a Test series does not feel as precious.
But there are also reasons that South Africa don't seem to be as high-profile an opposition or so highly-regarded as they used to be, The chaos that was CSA's administration turned public perception against cricket in the country and though things are starting to smooth over, enough damage was done, on and off the field, to cause major scars. In the last five years, South Africa's results have become inconsistent. Since May 2018, their win-loss ratio is sixth among the 12 Test teams, and that up-and-down run began when they returned to England in 2017.
The side that toured then was completely a different South Africa to the one that won five years before. They had been gutted of their core, with the retirements of Smith and Jacques Kallis and the sabbatical AB de Villiers took that year. They were also without Dale Steyn, who was recovering from a serious shoulder problem, illness and injury affected Vernon Philander's participation in the series and Kagiso Rabada missed a Test because of a suspension. South Africa went on to lose that series 3-1 and spiralled from there, losing to Sri Lanka home and away and to India and eventually found themselves seventh on the Test rankings.
Things have changed since. Under Elgar, who first captained in that 2017 Test series when Faf du Plessis was on paternity leave, they have not lost a Test series. And though the rebuild is still ongoing, the most important ingredients have fallen into place. "Our bowlers are big, tall, fast and strong and we've ticked the boxes with regards to the spin bowling department. We come in with a lot more resources," Elgar said, with a nod to having two specialist spinners in Keshav Maharaj and Simon Harmer - a rarity in a South African squad.
What Elgar didn't say is that there is a sharp difference in the quality of the batting line-ups from 2017 and now. Even without Smith and Kallis, South Africa had Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock. On this tour, only Elgar has played a Test series in England after South Africa lost vice-captain Temba Bavuma to an elbow injury before the tour began. Only two other members of the line-up - Aiden Markram and Rassie van der Dussen - have played 15 Tests. The rest of the specialist batters put together - Sarel Erwee, Keegan Petersen, Kyle Verreynne, Ryan Rickelton and Khaya Zondo - have played just 26.
Given all that, it's difficult to see if or how South Africa will be able to match England's fire (we won't name it because both captains have said they don't want to talk about it anymore) with their own. But that's not to say South Africa can't chase. They hunted down two record targets against India in Johannesburg and Cape Town earlier this year to win the series 2-0. "One of the biggest strengths as a Test side over the last period has been our awareness to adapt," he said. "When you are under the pump in Test cricket, you need to have skill. We've fast-tracked that at quite a good rate."
South Africa see themselves as a team that have progressed in the last decade from a style of cricket that is based on solid, but sometimes boring, batting and scary fast bowling to a team that can camouflage their approach a little more. They believe they have batters who can change tempo, and bowlers with variations and that they've started to catch up with teams that pulled ahead of them in terms of innovation. But the proof will only come against England.
Since beating them in 2012 South Africa have not won another series against England, home or away. They have, however, claimed at least once series victory over every other Test team in that decade and no-one other than India has a better win-loss ratio. So again, this is the final frontier.
It may not carry the same hype, the same names or the same backstory but there's a significance to this series and no-one knows that more than Elgar. "I didn't take this job thinking we were just going to be mid-table and not playing our best cricket. I have experienced us being world No.1 twice and I know that feeling - it's so great," he said. "But I know it's such a journey and such hard work to get there. I want the young guys to experience that. I still want to experience it before I close the chapter. That's a massive goal for me. That's the biggest one."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent