Ponting's high praise for Smith's men
In the reams that will be written about South Africa's success in Australia, one accolade is likely to get repeated more than others. Ricky Ponting praised South Africa for not being "too scared" to impose themselves and said they had "total belief" that they could win the series. For a team that is often accused of lacking killer instinct, those words could become their most prized compliment.
The final hours of the Perth Test required little bravery from South Africa. Having set Australia an improbable chase, despite the amount of time left in the game, the Test mace was already half-packed to make the journey back to Johannesburg. The valour had come two days before, when South Africa seized control decisively in a fashion they have not been known for before.
The bowling attack, which had only trundled in the previous two Tests, finally sped up with the roar of a race car. Inspired by Dale Steyn's aggression, South Africa sliced through Australia's first innings, knocking them over for 163 and securing a 62-run lead. The way they steered the Test in the evening session on the second day was even more remarkable. Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla changed the course of the match with a batting performance that appeared so effortlessly quick, and in hindsight that was the reason Australia couldn't find a way back in.
For Smith, that second day "has got to go down as one of the highlights of South African cricket." It was the day the No. 1 team played like a No. 1 team.
"That was them trying to impose themselves on the series and they did it better than I have seen any team take a game away from the opposition before," Ponting said. "A lot of the other teams we have played against over the years that have been in a position like that have been too scared to do that and push the game forward. What they did the other day was a sign that they had total belief in what they were doing. They put us under more pressure than I think we have been under for a long time so they thoroughly deserved to win this series."
It was "not the perfect series," as Smith put it, because injuries threatened team balance and South Africa had to make changes in every Test, something that goes against their consistency in selection.
After the first four days of the series in Brisbane, South Africa showed they could be vulnerable. After nine days of the series, they had banished that thought with a display of immense defensive capability despite all the hurdles, which included playing with 10 men. After 11 days, they attacked.
In Adelaide, South Africa had to bat more than four sessions to avoid losing and showed temperament that is too good to be called "scrapping," whatever Smith may say, to ensure safety. In Perth, they asked Australia to do the same thing but over a longer period of time. With an attack that had the three quick bowlers who have come to symbolise South Africa's resources over the last year, Smith had confidence that Australia would not be able to pull off the same kind of escape.
South Africa even changed their attitude towards including a spinner, according to circumstances. In Brisbane, they did not play one, in Adelaide they probably wished they hadn't played one, and in Perth they chose the defensive spinner in Robin Peterson over the attacking legspinner Imran Tahir. Peterson went beyond his brief.
A contribution like Peterson's is the kind that goes unnoticed when there is an angry Steyn steaming in, a flawless Amla painting pictures with his bat, and a born-again AB de Villiers on the charge. Peterson took six wickets in the match, cleaning up the tail to give his team a first-innings lead, and taking important middle-order wickets in the fourth innings.
"If you can see how much it takes to win away from home, it takes a team effort, not just one or two people to be able to win series," Smith said. "That's the outstanding thing about our team. Everyone is contributing and pulling their weight. It's been outstanding. What we've been able to achieve, it will take a long time for people to understand."
South Africa have not been home much this year and touring is tough, but it has probably suited their style of play. In the six-year period in which they have not lost away from home, South Africa won eight away series and drew two. At home, they won six series, drew three and lost one.
Unlike most teams that create fortresses in their own backyards, most of the players felt the group connected better when they are away because there was more opportunity to bond. They used the time to create a team culture that is braver than ones of the past.
Ponting said South Africa are currently "dominating," world cricket and qualified that praise. "Dominate is a strong word because it means extended periods of excellence."
Over the last four years, South Africa won series in England and Australia in the same year twice. "To have done it twice in a row is the proudest achievement of my career," Smith said. And they are the most important moments in South Africa's cricket too.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent