This was the Mantra adopted by Mickey Arthur and Graeme Smith in the face of a humiliating series defeat at home to England.
“Brave Cricket” was what was going to take South Africa to number one in the world in tests and One Day Internationals.
"Brave Cricket!"—a phrase that seemed to demand that each letter be capitalized, and punctuated with an exclamation mark!
Brave Cricket was the way, the truth, and the light.
“Codswallop” said the media, when Brave Cricket became stupid cricket, as evidenced in the disastrous 2007 World Cup in the West Indies.
Suffering defeats at the hands of Bangladesh, twice to Australia, and nearly choking at the hands of the superb Lasith Malinga, could hardly be described as "brave."
Flash forward to two years later. The same widely-ridiculed team, so prone to choking, is now rightfully regarded as one of the two best test teams in the world. Having won in Pakistan, England, drawn in India, and won in Australia, they’ve earned these credentials with nary a word on Brave Cricket.
So what’s happened?
Brave cricket failed simply because of this—Bravery is the instinctive response to fear.
Bravery is what you have to feign in the sporting equivalent of a “fight or flight” scenario. Fear is the fuel of bravery and the architect of failure.
South Africa has started to play cricket without fear because they now know that the rewards of winning far outweigh the burden of losing. For any team from sports-mad South Africa to cast aside fear, a country where losers are villains and winners are legends, where fear of losing dictates strategy, is an accomplishment in itself.
Unlike “Brave Cricket”, this new philosophy was not heralded by a press conference or a media release. It found it’s way into the mentality of every player through some form of psychological osmosis.
The source? Graeme Smith.
The way he compiled his series-winning knock in England when everyone else lost their heads around him, right up until his heroic stand in vain to try and save the Sydney test match speaks volumes about this new South African mindset. From 100-test veteran Kallis, down to debutant Duminy, fear has been banished.
Purely based on this, South Africa are favorites to win the return series against Australia.
Australia were the equivalent of Michael Schumacher during his all-conquering days in Formula One motor sport. It was quite an achievement to dominate the sport for so long, but quite frankly it nearly killed the sport. With the retirement of Michael Schumacher came more competitiveness to F1.
The difference between F1 and Test Cricket is not the fall of Australia’s legacy, but rather the emergence of two potential legacies in waiting; India and South Africa.
India, like South Africa, can also lay claim to being the number-one side in test match cricket. Ghambir and Sharma have been revelations in world cricket in 2008 and there’s no reason why they won’t continue their superb form in 2009. MS Dhoni will continue to grow in stature as a captain, and the working relationship between him and coach Gary Kirsten can only grow.
This is, assuming the internal politics of the players and the BCCI don’t get in the way.
Australia are still in the top two or three test-playing nations in the world. Only the most jaundiced of South African eyes can fail to see that a 2–1 series win could very easily have been a 0–3 series whitewash defeat had it not been for stand-out innings from AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Graeme Smith and a freakish knock of 76 by Dale Steyn.
Peter Siddle went from pie chucker to pace merchant in the space of one match, and while it is still too early to call, his ability to swing the ball at pace could see him picking up more than 50 test scalps in 2009. There is a bit of Craig McDermott sans warpaint about him.
Graeme Smith’s men must know that for anyone to take them as serious contenders, for the number-one ranking, they must beat Australia at home. Any other result would leave many people writing off a historic series win in Australia as a once-off fluke.
If the Proteas manage to win the return leg, Smith’s mission must be the establishment of a cricketing dynasty, like Australia in the '90s or the West Indies of the '70s and '80s. He has the backing of his CEO, the team—and, for the first time, the entire country.