It really does not matter where in the world the Proteas travel to, even here in New Zealand where on occasion it seems as if time is standing still, their mental state is questioned.
It is an aspect of the game South African cricket teams – past and present – just cannot hide away from. The Proteas pace-bowling unit was again lauded, the batting superstars are always held in high esteem and they also earned gasps from on-lookers while executing fielding drills at high intensity during the first training session of the tour at the Basin Reserve yesterday.
But when it comes to matters between the ears, it’s then when the opposition gain an extra spring in their step and sense an opportunity to topple the Proteas. The Black Caps feel they have an even greater entitlement to this than most, particularly after their mental destruction of South Africa in the World Cup quarter-final in Dhaka last year.
But South Africa, though, were a different unit close on a year ago. Gary Kirsten was leading India to World Cup glory then, while Graeme Smith was still at the helm in all three formats.
Wholesale changes have been made since, with Kirsten, the former Proteas opener, wearing the Proteas crest he so dearly loves again on his left chest, and AB de Villiers now leading the Proteas in the two limited-overs formats.
And it was De Villiers who stressed on Monday that it was not only the leadership that has changed within the Proteas set-up over the past 12 months, but also the playing staff, especially within the Twenty20 team, which has led to a different mindset among his troops.
“We’re a new unit with fresh faces,” De Villiers said after training on Monday. “We play a different kind of cricket than we have in the last few years. But, mentally, we will have to be tested in the future to see how strong we are. I believe we are very strong, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
While De Villiers may not have toured New Zealand before, he is, however, personally aware of the tactics the Kiwis employ to unsettle the opposition.
It was De Villiers’s farcical run out in that World Cup quarter-final that set off one of the most unsavoury incidents witnessed on a cricket field in a long time, involving Kiwi 12th man Kyle Mills, then-captain Daniel Vettori and De Villiers’s batting partner Faf du Plessis.
De Villiers denied that South Africa would be seeking revenge for the defeat or try to gain the ascendency now in the expected verbal exchanges, but admitted that when the Proteas face the Kiwis, something is bound to spark.
“There always is something, a little bit of this and that, when we play against New Zealand, especially the last time we met in the World Cup – a few things went down there. But, at the end of the day, they won that game,” the 27-year-old said.
It seems then that South Africa are only interested in getting the job done where it matters most, and that’s on the scoreboard, when the tour gets underway tomorrow with a T20 charity warm-up game against the Canterbury Wizards in Christchurch. The proceeds of this match will be donated to victims of the recent earthquakes that have befallen the city.
Coach Kirsten, who is one of the most relaxed characters on the international circuit, also gave assurances that his team would not get dragged into a slanging match with the Black Caps if their hosts’ hospitable behaviour was left outside of the white lines.
“If New Zealand want to get verbal with us, then that’s their business. The side that plays better cricket is going to win, bottom line,” Kirsten added.
“To be honest, I don’t think we’re going to think too much about what New Zealand are doing. We just feel that if we play really good cricket in terms of our skills and don’t say anything, we’re going to win more games than we’re going to lose.”
The Proteas will hope to fine-tune these skills and get their tour off to a comfortable start tomorrow evening in Christchurch (6am SA time). It’s not so much the result that matters in the grand scheme of things, but more the positive energies that would be created from good performances by a group of players who are still very much trying to lay down their footprints in the international game.
There are newcomers like Richard Levi, who is set to play in the green-and-gold for the first time, and Marchant de Lange, while there are also returnees such as Justin Ontong, Albie Morkel, Rusty Theron and Wayne Parnell who are eager to show that South Africa can compete without the likes of Smith, Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn.
“We have some young guys in our squad that we’re really excited about,” Kirsten said. “That is how we want to move forward in our cricket, and I am excited about it.
“It brings a real freshness to the team, and if we can broaden the base of our players, it can only be good for our squad.”
AB ON THE CHARITY MATCH AGAINST CANTERBURY
“It was a devastating thing that happened over there, and we really feel for the people of Christchurch, so when we were approached to play an extra match to help out, we were always going to do so because you always want to help people less fortunate than you.” – Cape Times