No visiting team since the West Indies under Clive Lloyd in 1992-93 had won a Test series in Australia. However the baggy greens were a side under pressure this season: not long after a 2-0 drubbing in India an unsettled Australia, who have now not named an unchanged side for any of their last 14 matches, went to battle with a team on an upward path.
Matthew Hayden and Michael Hussey went into the South Africa series bang out of form, frontline bowler Stuart Clark was out injured and it was clear when Australia were 43/3 at drinks on the morning of the first Test at Perth that the tourists had a chance to win in a country where all nine previous attempts over a period of a hundred years had proved unsuccessful.
South African coach Mickey Arthur has revealed the blueprint behind his team’s success, a strategy that mirrors the one used by England to win the Ashes in 2005, under the coaching of Duncan Fletcher. A committed backroom team that includes Fletcher and mental conditioning coach, former English off-spinner Jeremy Snape are all to be given credit for the Proteas’ recent series win.
Arthur has also told how he made each player sign a pledge to excel and has described the broad vision of the brand of cricket his team needed to play in order to be the best side in the world. This vision was translated into a concrete strategy and executed to the letter with team captain, Graeme Smith, and Cricket South Africa CEO, Gerald Majola.
Each of the South African batsmen signed a pledge saying that the top six batsmen are responsible for scoring 300 runs in each innings. The bowlers signed one promising to take 20 wickets in each match.
Arthur reluctantly acknowledged the similarities to Fletcher’s side of 2005: “We identified the components we believed we needed to win, then we identified the players and we backed them. There’s a similarity to the England team of a couple of years ago, sure, but we didn’t build our plan based on that. Dale Steyn and Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff and Jacques Kallis, Ashley Giles and Paul Harris, there are some very similar cricketers, but there’s a lot else that goes on behind the scenes which makes a difference.
“My partnership with Graeme has been key, in that we both really believe in each other. It is like a marriage. When a dressing room sees a captain-coach relationship like this, with a united goal and no egos, it is very powerful.
“Gerald has been amazing even at the worst times. The last time we were in Oz we were drubbed 3-0 in the Tests and were being smashed in the one-day matches. Gerald flew over and assured us of his full backing. It is a triangle – Gerald, Graeme and me.”
In a country where the meddling of politicians in the racial composition of the national team has been a continuing area of conflict, the fact that every player in the South African Test team deserves his place on merit is a tribute to Cricket South Africa’s transformation program. Coloured batsman Ashwell Prince was unfit to play any part in the series and was replaced by JP Duminy, whose match-winning 50 not out at Perth and fairytale 166 in Melbourne were both testaments to this successful transformation.
An equally significant transformation can be observed in the South African captain, Smith, who has completed a virtual metamorphosis in his evolution from the overconfident, unpopular and brash young captain of five and a half years ago to the wise and highly respected leader he is today.
Smith leads by example and has a reputation as the bravest man in cricket, after repeatedly batting in agonising pain. His 154 not out at Edgbaston was completed with excruciating tennis elbow and was probably the finest century made in 2008. Not only the top run-scorer of 2008, Smith is also currently the longest serving captain in the Test arena. He is only 27 years old.
“I was 22 when I took over and it felt like everybody was critical of my appointment,” said Smith on New Year’s Day. “I thought – rightly or wrongly – that many people at home were setting me up to fail. So I wanted to prove them wrong, I thought I had to lead from the front and stamp my authority on proceedings.
“It wasn’t necessarily the right way to go about things and it wasn’t really ‘me’, but that’s the way it was. I’m pleased to say I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin now and a lot more relaxed about just being me and concentrating on my cricket and doing as much leading by example as I can.”
There is no doubt that team psychologist, Jeremy Snape, has been instrumental in Smith’s transition from hot- to cool-headed captain. Snape first worked with Smith during the Rajasthan Royals’ triumphant IPL campaign, and although Smith is unlikely to admit it, the time spent under Royals’ skipper, Shane Warne, has proved invaluable to the development of his leadership skills.
South Africa has won all but one of its previous ten Test series, including its first win on English soil since 1965. The exception was a drawn series in India last year, which the visitors led 1-0 into the minefield of a battleground that was the dusty cracked pitch at Green Park, Kanpur.
In each of the first two Tests in this series, South Africa won from positions where no script could be written to do so. Again in the third, the visitors very nearly drew a match that looked all but lost, displaying a new strength of character and depth of resolve in this young team’s game. Before this series it looked as if India were due to replace Australia as the best team in the world, but the race is now wide open.
This article appeared in the Times of India in January 2009, after South Africa’s Test series win in Australia.