One week from now, South Africa will look back at the last five weeks in England and either feel like they’ve conquered the world or be bitterly disappointed with yet another case of being nearly-men. So close, but so far has been a theme that’s resonated with the Proteas for a long time, but there’s been a different aura surrounding them since Gary Kirsten took over.
It didn’t show right from the beginning, but it’s a seed that was planted when he took charge – a seed which looks like it’s finally blossoming and which, if all goes well, will bear the fruits of Kirsten and the team’s labour just a few days from now.
South Africa and England square off in the third and final Test starting at Lord’s on Thursday and Kirsten says that he’s very pleased with the way the preparations are going and have gone on their tour. The coach admits, though, that preparing for the climax has not been all that different to the rest of the tour.
“We’ve really focussed hard on that week in and week out we’ve practiced hard and we’re focussed to give ourselves the best chance of success in every game,” said Kirsten.
“I’m pleased with the way the guys have prepared for this tour, right from the start when we went to Switzerland. This time now is part of a bigger section for us, we want to win this tour to complete this section of our puzzle.”
While life in the Protea camp has been all hard work and supreme focus, Kevin Pietersen’s stand-off has dominated the headlines and the former South African was dropped from the England side for the final Test. He’s been England’s best player this tour and has the ability to turn games around single-handedly. While there can be no debate that that Pietersen’s absence will have an impact on England, Kirsten says the team prefers to focus on their opposition as a whole, instead of placing bounties on individuals.
“We focus on our preparation and the work that we do, we respect the opposition as a team and we know that we are playing against quality opposition and never take any team for granted,” Kirsten said. “We still look at the opposition in the same way and we don’t really focus heavily on individuals, we look at the team as a whole.”
Lord’s has been fruitful for South Africa – they last lost there in 1960. In 2003, they put on an emphatic innings and 92-run win. They drew their last match there in 2008, with Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla both notching up centuries in the second innings. There is a notion that Lord’s, the Home of Cricket, has something special about it and the South African coach says it’s the same for his charges.
“I think the guys really enjoy playing at Lord’s, it’s a great occasion,” said Kirsten. “When you arrive at this ground, there’s just an extra excitement, because it’s such a great ground with such superb facilities. We try to stay away from the past too much and not focus on that too much. Just because we’ve done well here before, doesn’t mean we will do well now. We have to focus on the task at hand and not get distracted.”
South Africa are on the brink of becoming the number one ranked Test team in the world. To snatch the honour away from England, they need to either win or draw the Test. Kirsten says that while there is a lot of talk around the legitimacy of the rankings, it certainly is a goal which South Africa have set for themselves and being number one is an alluring prospect.
“In August last year we put the peg in the ground that we want to be the best team in the world in all formats of the game. People talk a lot about the rankings and whether they hold any water, but I think deep down every team aspires to being number one,” said the South African coach. “If you are setting goals, you want to be the best and if that’s the yardstick to measure your success against, then that’s what you aim to achieve.”
One area of preparation which South Africa will be focussing heavily on ahead of Thursday is a no ball issue which has been plaguing Imran Tahir. While all their bowlers have struggled a bit with consistency, as a spinner, Tahir’s problem is of particular concern. Tahir overstepped the mark eight times at The Oval and nine times at Leeds – errors which are unacceptable for a spinner.
“We’re aware of the no balls issue, we’ve bowled far too many of them in both Tests, but it’s something we’re working on,” said Kirsten.
“We’re doing what we can to help Imran sort it out, it could be a number of different things causing it – everything from his run up to him trying to get more revolutions on the ball.”
Where Kirsten and the South Africans can take positives, though, is that they have consistently come back after an off session or day and they’ve managed to claw their way back into the matches with vigour, even after having a bad day at the office.
“I think the mark of a champion team is to not play that well and still come through and I think our team does have the ability to turn things around and that’s something we really pride ourselves in,” said Kirsten.
On paper, the task at hand for South Africa is a simple one. But cricket is a funny old game and Lord’s can be a funny old ground that throws up a bouquet of interesting scenarios.
One thing is for sure, with the Olympics now done and dusted, all focus will shift to the cricket on Thursday and a feast of entertainment awaits. DM
Photo: South Africa’s captain Graeme Smith (4th R) talks to his team in a huddle during the second cricket test match against England at Headingley cricket ground in Leeds August 4, 2012. REUTERS/Philip Brown
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