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Sun Apr 20 02:42:39 SAST 2014

England is the ultimate prize

Firdose Moonda | 04 July, 2012 06:510 Comments

THE clink of teacups settling onto saucers, the taste of scones (pronounced to rhyme with clones), the fine drizzle that could last for days, and many stiff upper lips. These things are going to define the next two months.

In between four tour matches and three tests, there will be a whole sub-culture to discover, one that is intimately tied to cricket and which South Africans are torn between revering and resenting.

England. The country against which South Africa has played competitively since 1889, beaten 129 times and lost to 126. Some think of it as the mother ship of cricket, others as a waning power.

It is the place that gave a home to this country's cricketers when they had nowhere else to ply their trade.

From the likes of Basil d'Oliveira, who triumphed above racial politics to play international cricket for England, to those such as Jimmy Cook, who prowled the county circuit believing it was the highest level at which they would ever play, England allowed them an avenue when the road was closed at home.

It is also the place that has plundered South Africa's resources more than any other. From Tony Greig and Allan Lamb to Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott, cricketers born here have been in high demand there. That is how it has always been, hasn't it? Us and them.

Sometimes we want to be more like them, at other times to have nothing to do with them. Either way, it is a particular sort of rivalry South Africa has with England.

It is not the aggressive anarchy that unfolds against Australia. It is not the desperate desire to get certain sects of fans back on the South African side, because they are so often shouting for the opposition when we play teams from the sub-continent. It is a subtle but more serious competitiveness, one that is explained only with an understanding of how much it means to beat England.

When South Africa won in 2008 - the first series victory in England since readmission - they went to the top of the test rankings for four months. That fact is hardly spoken about, perhaps because the stay at the summit was so short-lived but probably because winning in England surpasses the superficial concept of No1. It provides far greater satisfaction than that.

This time, there is also a No1 ranking at stake. Given South Africa's impressive record away from home - they have not lost a series since 2006 in Sri Lanka - few can say they deserve any less than to be called the world's top team. Gary Kirsten admitted it is a label they would love to have stuck on them, but he seems to know the tour is more important than that.

It is about things like asserting authority over an old enemy, playing at Lord's, taking high tea and maybe, just maybe, getting that stiff upper lip to change into a smile.

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