There are just ten days to go before the curtain is lifted for the most anticipated Test series of the year. In the run-up, Gary Kirsten, Graeme Smith and the team are exuding an air of quiet confidence. By ANT SIMS.
Gary Kirsten is facing his biggest test since being appointed as coach of the South African cricket team. He is under tremendous pressure to drive the team’s performance in England against the number one-ranked Test team in the world and, what’s more, the weather is certain to play a part. All in all, it’s tipped to be one of recent history’s most fiercely-contested Test series.
Kirsten is no stranger to pressure, nor to the challenges of leading a team to the summit of the Test rankings. In 2007, he was appointed coach of India. He officially took charge on 1 March 2008 and in December 2009, India was ranked the number one Test team. They held their position until July 2011, before being displaced by England.
Now, the journey for Kirsten will start all over again. South Africa has been agonisingly close to the top, but a poor home record has let the team down. Kirsten’s experience might be seen as an advantage, but that aside, he insists that as a coach, he will be focusing on the now.
“I'm not sure if my experience with India will be an advantage or not,” he says. “Right now, we're just putting in all the work that we need to in order to give ourselves the best chance of success.”
South Africa has a good record in England. The last time the team toured there, in 2008, they won the series 2-1. In 2003, the spoils were shared 2-2. The squad on tour in England at present is packed with players who have enjoyed lush success in Blighty. Graeme Smith, AB de Villiers and Morne Morkel all had a good time out on the last tour, although while Kirsten does believe it is to their advantage, he is adamant it’s back to square one. He believes the results will come down to winning the small battles in every match.
"We have a good side here, they are experienced and they've been here before and they've had success here before. But now we have to start again, and get our intensity up as soon as we can. I think it will come down to who can win the crucial moments in the Test matches,” Kirsten says.
South African skipper Graeme Smith says the side has landed in England with an air of quiet confidence, and the success of 2008 is something he hopes to see the side build on.
“We’ve come here with quiet confidence. We have performed well away from home for quite some time now, and we are hoping to build on the success of 2008. England is a quality team, though, and we have a lot of respect for them and the conditions here. It’s always a challenge to come here,” Smith says.
South Africa’s preparation ahead of the series has been a big talking point. While England is fresh off a Test series against the West Indies, the Proteas have had to make alternative arrangements to get themselves match-ready. They’ve set up a training camp in Switzerland, and they will play two warm-up matches before the Test series kicks off in just over a week’s time. While Kirsten has previously admitted Test matches would have been the ideal preparation, the winter season in South Africa and the Future Tours Programme made it tricky to set up match practice.
Nonetheless, the South African coach says he is pleased with the way preparations are going and that the team is determined to work even harder.
"I'm very happy with where we are in terms of preparation thus far. We've put in a lot of hard work and the guys want more,” says Kirsten.
Smith agrees, adding that there is actually more time leading up to the first test than what the side is accustomed to, with international schedules being as tight as they are.
"We've got about 10 days to prepare until the first Test starts and we're happy with that; it's actually quite a bit more than what we get these days. The training camp in Switzerland was also good to prepare and it was really tough, mentally tough more than anything. We're looking at getting ourselves cricket-ready come the 19th, and confidence will be the key,” says Smith.
Preparation begins on Monday, with a tour match against Somerset. Marchant de Lange and Alviro Petersen will miss out, both struggling with injury. De Lange is struggling with a lower back strain while Petersen sprained a joint in his foot after taking an awkward step during training on Saturday. Both players are being rested as a precaution. The coach and the rest of the side, meanwhile, will have their work cut out. DM
Photo: Gary Kirsten (Reuters)