To identify an area where South Africa are lacking at the moment would be to look for the smallest, barely visible crease on a shirt that is pristine in every other way.
After a 2012 in which they were not beaten and a three-day drubbing of New Zealand to open 2013, to point out that South Africa have not won consecutive Tests in almost three years would seem to be nit-picking.
But as the No. 1 team, standards are expected to be raised and levels of ruthlessness should follow. Although weather has been one of the reasons South Africa have been denied back-to-back wins, complacency and an allergy to Durban are two other causes.
At home, South Africa lost the Kingsmead Test for the last four years even after thumping wins up-country because of an inability to adapt to slightly less-bouncy conditions. Port Elizabeth has a similar – though slightly smaller – hoodoo.
South Africa have lost their last three Tests in the city, against West Indies, England and Pakistan. Only one of those was in the middle of a series so the relaxation factor can’t be blamed, as AB de Villiers suggested yesterday, it was actually a case of starting slowly. With conditions at St George’s not much different from what they were in the past, South Africa have identified that adjusting will be their biggest challenge, especially with an eye on the match in Durban coming later in the year against India.
“It’s generally a bit slower and so it’s a bit harder work for batsmen and bowlers. The bounce and carry are not the same as other grounds,” Graeme Smith said. “But the training has been intense and has focused as before. We’d love to keep winning.”
With that in mind, it was surprising to see mostly the bench players attend the optional practice day before the Test. Dean Elgar, Faf du Plessis and Graeme Smith were the only members of the playing XI who had a net session while Jacques Rudolph and Ryan McLaren put in some hard yards to stay match fit.
For the rest, preparation is being done mentally in keeping with the new approach. It may sound a little too new an age for those who believe in a more rigorous regime but it has worked well for South Africa. Their team of mostly experienced internationals have blossomed under Gary Kirsten’s man-management and Smith believes the tactics which took them to No. 1 in the world can also help them starting stacking victories together.
“In the past of we would have been running 60 shuttles, doing push ups, running up and down the stairs,” Smith said, remembering regimes under coaches like Eric Simons and Ray Jennings.
“Now, there’s an understanding of how to be successful and there’s maturity in the group. That is the key difference. Back in the day we were always hard working and we always gave our best. I think the word to describe us was discipline. Now, there’s a good maturity in allowing people to grow.
“The guys who have been around for a while understand what they need to get out of preparation. Someone like Dean Elgar may need a bit more guidance but Jacques Kallis may take a day off because it’s what he has been doing for the last 50 Tests. It’s all very professional behind the scenes and nothing is taken for granted.”
Smith has seen the effects of all the changes and with three months to go from completing a decade in the job is more comfortable in it than ever before. “I am enjoying leading in this environment. The coaching staff take pressure off me as a captain and I don’t have to worry about too many things. We are taking steps forward now as a formidable unit who can put in consistent performances and it’s nice to have come full circle.”
An opposition in the state of turmoil and transition as New Zealand can hardly be seen as one in which South Africa can use to take a significant step up. Before the series began, it was a considered a given that the home side would win and the margins would be massive.
Newlands proved that the teams are running their own races and South Africa’s finish-line would be to notch up two successive wins and earn an extra point on the rankings. If the Test is drawn and the series is only won 1-0, South Africa will lose a point while if New Zealand surprise South Africa and win the match to square the series, South Africa drop four points.