Smith 2.0 upgrade works wonders
Graeme Smith entered the series quiet, confident and keen to let his team's cricket do the talking. His century on the fourth day in Perth sent a louder message to Australia than any amount of verbal banter and despite Australia's efforts to make a noisy reply with late wickets, Smith's 108 made a near-record target seem almost manageable.
During the past year Smith has built a reputation as a leader who stands up at the big moments. At Lord's, when South Africa were following-on, his 107 ensured that they escaped with a draw and a brilliant unbeaten 154 at Edgbaston helped them reach their target of 281. It was an innings of sheer class and one that he declared his greatest ever, as it secured South Africa's first series win in England for 43 years.
Their record against Australia is similarly poor. They have not beaten them in a series since 1969-70 and have never managed the task in Australia. So when Smith calmly constructed a century at the WACA it gave hope to the South African fans that maybe, just maybe, another chapter in their cricketing history was about to be rewritten. But as good as England can be they are a less daunting opponent than Australia at home and 414 is an altogether more frightening target than 281.
When Smith and Hashim Amla both departed in the final session it left South Africa needing to complete the second-highest chase of all time without their key men. They would also have to significantly eclipse their previous best chase of 335 against Australia in Durban in 2001-02. Smith at least gave them early hope.
His talent has been apparent to Australians since he made 68 against them on his Test debut at Cape Town in 2002 at the age of 21. Since that day Smith had powered through Test attacks the world over and led his No. 2-ranked side so well that they have not lost a series in two years but he had not managed another half-century against Australia.
Now Australia have seen two Graeme Smiths visit their shores for Test tours. Version 1.0, released in 2005-06, made a lot of noise, didn't do what it promised and had a tendency to crash the system. The updated edition, Version 2.0, has been nearly three years in development. Like most upgrades it is quieter and smoother, sturdier and longer-lasting.
"There was a period for maybe a year I went through one or two technical challenges," Smith said. "More mentally than anything else I think the captaincy in terms of touring big nations at that age, trying to guide a team in the right direction, all those things were on my shoulders.
"Growing up, settling down and just mentally being more calm and focused in what I wanted to achieve was certainly a big thing for me. I think I'm much more calm at the crease and focused on what I want to do each ball and to each bowler. It makes a big change for me from the last time I played here."
The coolness was evident when Smith walked to the crease today. He is the type of batsman who can dominate an attack or can defend as the situation demands. His task was made more difficult by the clever captaincy of Ricky Ponting, who placed Andrew Symonds at short midwicket, where Smith likes to pick off runs early in his innings. But Smith was patient. He waited for opportunities, drove straight when he could and after going to tea on 34 from 64 balls, he began to open up.
When his century came with a pair of boundaries cut off Mitchell Johnson, his celebrations were muted. There were a couple of quick bat-raises and the sort of restrained smile usually reserved for people conscious of their bad teeth, and Smith was back at the crease, determined to bat through the day.
It didn't happen and the loss of Smith and Amla has left the match in the balance. But for a man who has experienced such success around the globe yet such disappointment against Australia, it was a day that confirmed his growth. South Africa might win the match or they may not but at least Smith has ensured they have sent the world's No. 1 team a message that cannot be ignored.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo