How South Africa rose to number one

Along with Paddy Upton, Gary Kirsten has identified what it is that the world's top cricket teams require to lift them to another level, writes Tristan Holme.

There was a telling moment during Monday evening's presentation ceremony, when Michael Atherton asked Graeme Smith about the message on his shirt. 'We miss u Bouch', it read, but after paying tribute to his good friend back home, Smith did something else: he made reference to last week's Marikana tragedy, which saw 34 miners gunned down by police, and said that he wanted South Africans to know that the team were thinking of them in their moment of grief.

For any cricket captain giddy with excitement at achieving his life goal it showed a commendable presence of mind, but this is particularly true in Smith's case. The South African captain has often been out of touch with the average cricket fan – most obviously when he failed to return home after last year's World Cup defeat – let alone the man in the street. For him to acknowledge an incident which has shocked South Africans back home was a sign of his growing maturity, but also the extent to which Gary Kirsten's subtle leadership has created greater awareness in the human beings he manages.

In fact, Kirsten's hand could be seen in many of the key moments as the final day played out in dramatic fashion. Where previously South Africa have been easily spooked, and allowed their emotions to cloud their judgement, on Monday they looked as calm as one could expect of a team over whom the risk of public humiliation once again hung heavily. While Smith has become flustered in tense moments before, now Kirsten's zen-like aura appears to have been transferred onto his captain.

Along with Paddy Upton, who during the course of the series was elevated from Mental Conditioning Coach to Performance Director, Kirsten has identified what it is that the world's top cricket teams require to lift them to another level, and it has less to do with coaching cricket skills than it does with creating a winning mindset.

"Every international cricketer will say that the mental side of the game is at least 80 per cent responsible for your success or lack thereof," Upton said after the first Test at The Oval. "South Africa have the skill to be the best team in all formats of the game, there is not much questioning of that.

"However we know that in the modern day, having the right skill, the right video analysis and the fittest team in the world doesn't guarantee success, because there's an intangible around human performance under really high-pressure moments that becomes the differentiator between a team that remains at No 1, and a team that's there or thereabouts and blows hot and cold."

In order to conquer that differentiator, which has eluded South Africa for years, Kirsten and Upton have used a number of methods to change their mindset from one that is afraid of failure to one that embraces the pressure moments.

Firstly, they have put the players in charge of their own training – allowing them to decide for themselves what they require to be in peak physical and mental condition for a Test match. The old-school coaching manual sees the coach dictate training methods and analyse the opposition, which doesn't teach the players to think for themselves at all, let alone think on their feet in high-pressure situations. Kirsten and Upton have turned that around.

Then there is the question of 'processes', which the South Africans speak about religiously. It oftens comes across as being rather vague, but essentially it is all about focusing on the nuts and bolts rather than on the end result. Through this mental sphere, South Africa believed that they had a very successful first day in the series, even if England scored 267 for three. According to Upton, the bowlers hit the areas that they wanted, had the fields they had planned and, perhaps most importantly, put out the energy that they wanted. The result did not look great, but they stuck to their processes and the result came emphatically right over the next four days.

Kirsten and Upton therefore deserve every plaudit that comes their way (though do not expect them to hog the limelight – quite the opposite), because their methods have now taken two different teams to the top of the world rankings.

But a word must also go to Vernon Philander's contributions, because it's easily forgotten that this time last year South Africa were lacking a third seamer to support Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, while Philander was thought of by the average fan as nothing more than a horrible throwback to the quota era. Given how successful he has been since his Test debut, it felt entirely appropriate that he should claim the final two wickets and take the Proteas to No 1 in the world.

<b>Tristan Holme – <i>follow him on <a href='http://' target='_blank' class='instorylink'><u>Twitter</u></a></i></b>