Four years ago, South Africa achieved what many thought to be the unachievable, beating Australia 2-1 in their own backyard. Now they’re back, and they still haven’t lost an away series. The memories of the last tour still linger, and captain Graeme Smith is mightily excited by it all. By ANT SIMS.
Four years ago, the South African cricket team headed Down Under with Mickey Arthur as coach and Graeme Smith as captain. As with all tours of Australia, it was a nervy affair, but the Test team who seemingly couldn’t lose away from home impressed and delivered, clinching a 2-1 win to become the first Protea side to win in Australia since readmission.
Now they are back there, and while they have had their ups and downs since that tour four years ago, the Proteas have been a pretty fierce team to contend with. They have unearthed a gem in Vernon Philander, and as a unit, they have looked like a well-oiled machine. Reaching the summit of the Test rankings by beating England at home was just another notch in their all-conquering belt away from home. They have not lost a series outside of South Africa since getting hammered in Sri Lanka back in 2006. Since then, they have racked up an impressive list of scalps on their away tours and for Smith, the victories in Australia almost four years ago ranks quite high on the list.
"To beat Australia in those stadiums and those environments is something that I don't think South Africans had dreamt of for a very long time," Smith says.
"For us to be able to achieve that and be there in those moments was incredible. It probably took us a little bit of time to recover from those highs, but since that return leg from Australia we've been pretty steady and consistent in our performances, and maybe that was the stepping stone for the success that we've had.”
Mental preparation has been the key for the Proteas, and while they might not have shown much in ICC tournaments in the last few years, their resilience in the Test arena has been quite something. For Smith, knowing that they have overcome the hurdle in Australia before will play a crucial role.
"Winning here four years ago and knowing it is something that you know you've done before certainly it does help in the self-belief factor… I think the achievements the team has put together the last few years, with England just gone by, we obviously do arrive here with a self-belief that we can perform well,” says the skipper.
The team has grown tremendously since that fateful day when JP Duminy and Dale Steyn combined for one of the most memorable partnerships in Test cricket history. They look hungrier and more determined than ever before, and while they have little time to adapt to conditions in Australia, Smith believes the side is mature enough to rise to the occasion.
"We started to get a team together that could adapt to conditions," Smith says. "The maturity of the team – in terms of growing as we've gone on – and the players are settled, and able to adapt to conditions, not only on the pitch but off the field. All the different challenges that you face on a tour now; I think we're able to meet them. I think the team handles being away from home in a good space and in a mature way.”
Of the team which won in Australia last time, eight players are still part of the line up. Smith finished that tour as second-highest run scorer, with Hashim Amla, JP Duminy, AB de Villiers and Jacques Kallis all featuring in the top 10. Dale Steyn bagged 18 scalps – the most of the tournament – at an average of 26.16.
When it comes to knowing how to win away from home and adapt quickly, nobody does it better than the Proteas, and Smith admits that motivates him and his team.
"It's about understanding how you're going to be successful in the environment that you're playing. We've got a few experienced guys around now that have toured a fair bit, and hopefully we [will] use that experience well. Certainly I think it's the challenge that we look forward to, of winning in someone else's backyard. It's a tough thing to do, and I think that challenge is something that excites us,” says Smith.
The tour of Australia kicks off a busy summer for South Africa. They have two series against New Zealand and Pakistan at home coming up, and they will want to head into those Tests with their number one ranking still firmly intact. They aren’t quite The Invincibles just yet, but if they can conquer Australia again and do so convincingly, they might very well be on their way to becoming one of the most dominant forces in Test cricket.
Not bad going for a bunch of so-called chokers. DM
Photo: South Africa's captain Graeme Smith (L) talks with coach Gary Kirsten during a training session before Thursday's second cricket test match against England at Headingley cricket ground in Leeds August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Philip Brown