All in the mind for top-ranking South Africa

Tristan Holme finds out how a new emphasis on self-help by coach Gary Kirsten and his backroom staff took the Proteas from 'chokers' to the best Test team in the world.

Cooler heads prevailed as South Africa narrowly beat England in the final Test at Lord's to clinch the series and become world No 1. Gareth Copley / Getty Images
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It may not have been obvious at the time, but South Africa had a very good first day in their Test series against England.

England closed day one of the first Test on 267 for three, suggesting their batsmen were more than up to the task of warding off South Africa's attack, which pundits accused of being rusty.

Yet far from panicking, the South Africans gave themselves a high score on the index through which they analyse performance.

"The result suggests that we didn't do very well," performance director Paddy Upton says. "But we look at the process and ask: did we hit the areas that we wanted to? Did we have the fields we wanted, did we bowl the line that we wanted, did we have the energy that we wanted and did we have the right thinking?

"And the answer was that probably 85 per cent of the time we did, so we had a very successful day in terms of our processes."

Confident that following those processes would eventually bring the results by which teams are ultimately judged, South Africa returned to The Oval the next morning and bowled England out for 385, before going on to record one of the most crushing victories in Test history.

It was a triumph for the methods of Upton and coach Gary Kirsten. That focus on the process rather than the end result is just one of the building blocks they have used to turn South Africa from perennial nearly-men into the world's top-ranked Test side over the course of the past 12 months.

The pair have been close friends for a number of years, and share the belief that at the highest level of cricket it is the mental side of the game which matters most.

"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," Upton says.

"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."

Having recognised this fact, Kirsten and Upton have rewritten the coaching manual to equip their players appropriately. A big part of their ethos has been to put the responsibility for everyday decisions back on the players.

"It's not up to the coach to tell you what you must do at practice," Upton says. "It's not up to [bowling coach] Allan Donald to assess the opposition batsmen for Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. It's about them doing the assessments for themselves, about them assessing their own game, about them understanding their own bodies – when they need to train and when they need to rest.

"Traditionally in sports, coaches take on very much an instruction-based role where they're making provisions for players. When you're doing that you're not encouraging people to learn, and if you're not learning you're not growing.

"We're asking players under really high-pressure situations to make really good decisions in a split-second. So we need to create an environment that encourages players to make decisions on a daily basis, so that they're used to making decisions."

Kirsten and Upton used these techniques to take India to the top of the Test rankings – as well as a World Cup victory – during their three years in charge, and their ideas have been a breath of fresh air for a South African side who have not previously been taught to think for themselves.

With a Masters in Business Coaching, Upton is somewhat scathing of sports psychologists because he believes that creating the right team environment – through the messages that the leadership send – is far more important. Although he does have one-on-one conversations with players around the mental side of the game and "any area of their life that might be causing confusion", he believes that negative energy and body language within the team can quickly counter the progress made in those sessions.

"What happens in reality, and which is my experience in a number of businesses I worked in, is that if I'm a mental conditioning coach doing great one-on-one work with a person for an hour once a week, they will leave the conversation very happy and very upbeat with some good positive energy, and they'll go back into their system," he says.

"Whatever the culture or energy in that system, they will very quickly get sucked back into that energy and out of the space created by our conversation. That's one of the reasons I think a sports psychologist doesn't work, because the coach and the captain and the senior leadership, every single interaction they have with the team has an impact on their mental conditioning. Everything they say in a meeting, every action they do, everything they don't say, shapes a culture and an energy of the team."

Crucially, his methods have addressed the mental issues which have hampered the Proteas for years. South Africa have only won one major ICC event – the inaugural ICC Knockout Trophy in 1998 – since their readmission to international cricket in 1991, and have blown previous opportunities to reach the Test summit. The only time that they have held the No 1 Test ranking, it came when England's Ashes win in 2009 dethroned Australia.

To overcome the mental scarring which has come from being labelled "chokers", some unusual techniques have been employed – such as holding a four-day camp in Switzerland with extreme explorer Mike Horn. Coming at the expense of potential match practice, the trip was criticised in some quarters but the players have highlighted it as one of their fondest memories as a team. Horn, who has circumnavigated the globe and traversed the Arctic circle without motorised transport, and climbed the 8,047m Broad Peak without oxygen, put the players through a series of physically and mentally demanding challenges that were designed to promote a team culture.

"I just felt that everyone got extra belief from knowing that they could do things that they didn't think were possible," fast bowler Vernon Philander says. "The guys also learnt a hell of a lot from him, which has just brought the team so much closer. We had to do a whole lot of things together as a team which helped create the great team spirit that we've now got."

It was fitting that Philander should take the final two wickets on Monday to wrap up the series 2-0, because his addition to the South African side last November in many ways gave them the final piece of their jigsaw. While Steyn and Morkel had previously lacked a third seamer who could provide adequate support for their attacking talents, Philander has more than filled that role since making his Test debut, taking 63 wickets in 10 Tests at an average of 15.96.

His rise has been phenomenal – he is second only to Steyn on the ICC's latest Test rankings for bowlers – and he has made the Proteas as complete a team as they might hope for. Yet South Africa have possessed excellent teams before without managing to conquer the world, so the input of Kirsten and Upton cannot be over-estimated.

"Paddy's always encouraging players to seek out the pressure moments in games and embrace pressure and deal with it," says South African assistant coach Russell Domingo. "We all know the history of South Africa in World Cups and big events and the constant pressure that they seem to find."

With Upton keeping a close eye on various personal interactions, Kirsten's tenures with both India and South Africa have been notable for their calmness – in victory and defeat – which has clearly rubbed off on the players.

Where the South Africa of old would have panicked when Matt Prior counter-attacked on the final day of the deciding Test at Lord's, Graeme Smith kept a cool head and trusted that sticking to the processes would ultimately bring victory.

"We got put under massive pressure at the end, we could have lost the game, but the guys pulled through. Now there is incredible learning out of that," Kirsten says.

"To be put in that situation and overcome it and win it, especially for this South African team – where we've had some scarring in the shortened formats of the game in the past – to come through that will be big for those players."

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