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December 30, 2008
Graeme Smith has hailed a shift in the power-balance in world cricket after what he described as the greatest year in the South African team's history. Smith entered the tour calm and composed and aiming to be the first man to lead South Africa to a series victory in Australia; it has taken barely a fortnight to complete the task and it rounds off a remarkable 12 months.
"It's got to be the best," Smith said when asked where 2008 ranked in the history of South African cricket. "No disrespect for anything that's gone before us, we're very respectful of the history of our game, all the people who have had opportunities before us and who have never had opportunities.
"But I think for us it's got to be the most incredible season South African cricket has ever had, to sit here with the results we've got. I don't think anyone could argue with that."
Over the past two years South Africa have built such a strong outfit that they have not lost a series since they visited Sri Lanka in 2006. This year they have beaten England in England and kept India to a drawn series in India, and with one more victory against Australia in Sydney they can jump to No. 1 on the ICC's Test rankings.
"I think the balance of power is evening out in world cricket," Smith said. "Credit to Australia, they've dominated world cricket for a decade. I think they've obviously enjoyed that time. It doesn't mean that they're going to be beaten in future tours and be easier to beat. But I think the balance has evened out a little."
When Hashim Amla clipped the ball through midwicket for two to bring up the MCG victory, it completed a remarkable couple of weeks for the South Africans. At the WACA, they had been destroyed by Mitchell Johnson's spell on the second afternoon and came back to record the second-highest fourth-innings chase in Test history.
In Melbourne, they were 7 for 198 at stumps on day two and trailed by nearly 200; their tail wagged so ferociously that they earned a 65-run first-innings lead. They were the sort of fightbacks teams could only dream of against Australia in past seasons.
"I think we've just been composed, I think we've just gone about playing our cricket," Smith said. "When we've come out on the big days and been behind the game we've really played the better cricket when we've had to. I don't think I could have dreamt of a partnership like we had at the back end on day three."
But it was the kind of performance that has defined South Africa's 2008. Their stunning victory at Edgbaston was the highlight until this tour; it has now been comprehensively eclipsed.
After the Melbourne win, Smith, the leading Test run-scorer for the calendar year, was sitting next to Dale Steyn, the highest wicket-taker in 2008. The men are 27 and 25, and it was a reminder that this youthful South African outfit has moved on from previous failures and could itself be the team that inflicts pain on other sides in years to come.
"The word choker came up - we don't have that kind of history on us," Steyn said after winning the Man-of-the-Match award for his ten wickets and 76 with the bat. "If we can start winning like this, fresh in our careers, this is what we can continue and take forward. Maybe it starts off a new generation, I don't know. I'm just very proud to be part of a side that's achieved something special."
It is an effort that has captured the imagination of fans at home in South Africa. The match finished at around 5 am South Africa time; offices around the country were likely to be filled with bleary-eyed workers on Tuesday.
"Just knowing back home and the hype around the series and what's been written about it," Smith said. "I think it's only about five in the morning back home and my phone is filled with messages already. I think there are a lot of people who are lacking sleep."
The players themselves might be short on rest over the next couple of days as well. They head to Sydney for their New Year's Eve celebrations before regrouping for the third Test, which starts on Saturday. For now, the order of the day is to live in the moment. "I don't think there's enough beer in all of Australia to satisfy us tonight, " the spinner Paul Harris said.
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