Proteas strive for decency in bid to be best
A decade ago coach Eric Simons drew up a "Players Charter" that he encouraged the national team to live their lives by both on and off the field. It was accepted more than embraced and with more bemusement than enthusiasm.
It was nothing more than an attempt to ensure that cricketers representing their country understood their responsibilities as role models, respected their opposition and played for each other rather than themselves.
In short, it was designed to remind them what "decent" behaviour entailed and how to be what sports people call "a good man".
It was a fine concept, deeply and sincerely motivated and well intended. But the timing was wrong. Graeme Smith was just 22 years old and too many of the senior players were right in the middle of the "me, me" phase of their careers.
Gary Kirsten is a graduate of the Simons coaching philosophy and has implemented many of his ideals. The student turned teacher a few years ago when Kirsten employed his mentor as bowling coach with the Indian national team.
So to hear Smith, 10 years later, answer the question "Is this the best South African team you have been involved in?" would have brought a wry smile to Simons's face. "They are good men. They are definitely the best men I have been involved with."
A recurring theme of Kirsten's and Paddy Upton's discussions with the squad is "We are human beings first and cricketers second".
As with so many of Kirsten's methods, it is based on his personal experience of 101 Test matches and comes from the lack of respect he occasionally saw professional athletes develop for those around them.
When the entire "backroom" staff hosted the travelling media for dinner this week (they outnumbered us two to one), it was no surprise to see their bus driver there.
It is nonsense to suggest that "good men" will automatically become winners, or that selfish, self-obsessed athletes will fail. But it is far more likely that those with a balanced perspective on life and respect for every aspect of their environment will enjoy more consistent and longer- lasting success.
Nothing for granted
"We respect England and we know that they have the talent and ability to come back and beat us," said Smith before the second Test at Headingley. "We take nothing for granted, but I will tell you that we want to be the best in the world and I can't apologise for being ambitious.
"We are within touching distance of the number-one ranking and we want to get our hands on it and then keep them there for a long time. But we know we have to be humble to get there - and humble to stay there."
Kirsten's opposite number, Andrew Strauss, delighted the media by eschewing the dull option of downplaying the importance of the ranking and concurring with Smith about how much it means to the team.
"It took a lot of hard work to get there and it would be very disappointing to lose it, which is what will happen if we lose this match. It means an awful lot to us."
The repetitive manner in which the South African players speak publicly about being "process-driven, not results-driven" makes them sound a little "manufactured", like American Collegiate golfers.
It is deeply ironic, because nothing could be further from the truth - each member of the squad is encouraged to be themselves and to identify what their own "process" should be.
"Gary encourages us to be aware of the space we are in and to do everything we can to remain mentally fresh and excited about playing," said Jacques Rudolph earlier this week. "If we need to spend a day away from cricket, or do something different at practise, then we are free to do that."
Hashim Amla stood out as a selfless example of everything the team stands for at training on Monday and Tuesday.
Having concluded that 13 hours at the crease and a triple century in London did not require much topping up, he spent the first two days in Leeds throwing balls to members of the top order who had been denied a chance to bat by his heroic marathon. JP Duminy was the prime beneficiary.
If this all sounds a bit "touchy-feely", one only needs to watch a single fitness session under the guidance of Rob Walter to have that impression crushed. Two days after his strength-sapping innings, Amla was thrashing his body through a sprint-shuttle session on the outfield at Worcester, which left him gasping for breath. He had not been told to do it. It was his choice.
"We train every day so that we can be the best we can be and give ourselves the chance of being the best in the world. It is a physical and mental process," Smith said.
Having been overwhelmed by an innings in the first Test, it seems the mountain England have to climb to get back into the series comprises a bit more than just runs and wickets.