The quest for number one: it all starts in Switzerland
The number one world ranking is up for grabs when South Africa takes on England in a three-match Test series starting on 19 July. But the Proteas are pulling out all the stops to help them prepare – mental, physical and social. By ANT SIMS.
In less than three weeks, South Africa will begin its quest to snatch the world number one Test team ranking from England, in England. But before that, in the spirit of both rest and team bonding, they’ll spend a few days in Switzerland – undertaking some unusual travels with seasoned adventurer Mike Horn. The quest for number one, in other words, will start with a quest through some forests and glaciers.
This is all before they get up to the usual cricket business, and it’s in the name of holistic preparation that goes beyond just training. It’s not the first time Horn has worked with South African coach Gary Kirsten; when he was in charge of India, Horn held motivational talks with the Indian team. And he clearly made an impression, because he’s now in charge of taking the team to man up (and relax) before the major sporting challenge.
According to Kirsten, the trip will afford the players the chance to do something a bit different – something which, nonetheless, has been in the pipelines for some time.
"This is something we came up with about a year ago. We wanted this not just for the England tour, but also to help our side prepare for the tough season ahead," said Kirsten.
The side is tacking a combination of team bonding, physical preparation and good old-fashioned rest in preparation for the series. Before the three-match Test series gets underway at The Oval on 19 July, the team will have two warm-up matches to get used to the English conditions. While much noise has been made about preparation in the past, Kirsten feels that there is no science to preparing for a series, no matter how big the occasion.
“We’re quite comfortable with the fact that we have 17 days leading up to the series, and we’re happy to be together as a team and we want to make sure that we cover all our bases,” he says.
“We know that we are playing against a quality team and, aside from making sure we are prepared physically, we want to make sure we are connected as a unit. We want to connect as a bunch of people, to help give ourselves the best chance of success.”
Aside from the possibility of being crowned world number one, a milestone beckons for skipper Graeme Smith. The Test at The Oval will mark his 100th appearance in Test cricket for South Africa. Smith has relished playing in England, averaging 79.33 there in 2003, on just his second overseas trip as captain, and 61.50, during the last time out in 2008.
“I’ve spoken to Gary about achieving the milestone. He was the first person to do it (for South Africa) and back when he did it, it almost seemed an untouchable achievement. It’s something which has crept up slowly and something I am really proud of,” says Smith.
“I still have the same motivation I had on my first tour to England, and I’ve trained really hard for this tour.”
The number one Test ranking has loomed large over for South Africa for a while now, but they’ve never quite been able to capture it. In 2011, they remained second-ranked for most of the year, dropping to third in December, and the story was much the same in 2010 – where they were placed second for the whole year. But an inability to capitalise on home advantage when touring teams came knocking has cost them.
Their away form, though, has been nothing short of mercurial, having last lost an away series in 2006, in Sri Lanka. Since then, they have beaten Australia, West Indies, England and New Zealand in their own backyard.
To knock England off its perch, South Africa needs to win the three-match series, and while it might seem like extra motivation for the tour, Smith insists that the side doesn’t need any more motivation than simply beating England in England.
“As a Test team, we’ve been close to the number one ranking for some time now, and we hope that this will finally be the year where we can take ourselves to the next level. But we want to make sure that we are focused on ourselves and that we are as prepared as possible against England,” said Smith.
“We want to go and compete – we have seen how much this means to the fans. There is already a buzz about, and we know that it’s a big deal to beat England on their home turf, but we’re also hoping to take that step forward in international cricket that will see us become world number one.”
Kirsten is far more bullish and insists that the goal is for South Africa to become the best cricket team in the world. He knows, however, that the processes involved in getting there are equally important.
“We’ve put the peg in the ground that we want to be the best team in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s our sole focus. We want to focus on our processes that will help us get there,” says Kirsten.
“The word process gets thrown around so often and it has a lot of different meanings. For us, it means ensuring we prepare as best we can so that we can give ourselves the best chance of success.
“We’ll leave no stone unturned come 19 July. We want to go there and win the series and become the world number one, but we also know that it will take hard work and we will make sure that we have prepared to the best of our ability in order to make that happen,” he adds. DM
Photo: South Africa's Graeme Smith (R) and his team leave the field after drawing the third and final international cricket test match, and winning the series against New Zealand in Wellington, March 27, 2012. (REUTERS/Anthony Phelps)