Smith and Kirsten seal victory for South Africa
A superbly constructed 171-run partnership for the fourth wicket between Graeme Smith and Gary Kirsten completely swung the match South Africa's way, as they levelled the series 1-1 with a convincing six-wicket win at Wellington. Needing 152 on the final day with seven wickets in hand, Smith led the way with an unbeaten 125, but Kirsten, in his last Test innings, played an equally crucial hand, battling his way to 76 before being dismissed in the last over before lunch.
The story of the day was the matchwinning stand, but the most poignant moment came off the last ball of the morning session, when Kirsten left the field for the final time in Test cricket after being trapped in front by Scott Styris. Normally not given to emotion, Kirsten passionately kissed his helmet before walking off in tears, while all the New Zealand players stood aside and applauded the effort of the man who had - one last time - helped steer his team to the brink of victory.
When play began on the final day, both sides had an equal chance of victory, but Smith and Kirsten shut New Zealand out with a nerveless batting display. Smith carried on from where he had left off on the fourth evening. Pilloried for everything from lack of mental toughness to lack of tactical acumen in the last month, he hit back in style. The feature of his knock was his leg-side batting, as he repeatedly took balls from around off stump and effortlessly clipped them to midwicket, a stroke which, fittingly, brought South Africa the winning run. It would normally be termed risky cricket, but so fluent was Smith that it seldom appeared so.
Kirsten, on the other hand, was far more scratchy at the start - he mistimed drives, played and missed at a few, and generally struggled with footwork and timing. Hardly the sort of person to be bothered by it all, he just knuckled down, soaked up all the pressure, knocked around the singles, and gradually got back into the groove. By the end of his innings he was in excellent form, stroking drives through cover and back past the bowler, and even executing a couple of delightful late-cuts for four.
With early wickets so crucial to their chances of victory, New Zealand started proceedings with Chris Martin and Jacob Oram. However, both began by straying towards leg stump, and were picked off for easy runs by Smith, who flicked fours off both bowlers to reach his half-century in style. Martin failed to get the swing that had made him such a potent force in this series, which meant that the deliveries which were supposed to pitch on leg and move late across the left-handers now became regulation runscoring opportunities.
Twenty-four came off the first seven overs, but New Zealand gradually tightened their line, as Chris Cairns and Daniel Vettori were pressed into the attack. The next nine overs produced only ten runs, but both batsmen survived that period patiently, knowing that with plenty of time in hand, the onus would be on New Zealand to force the issue. Cairns, in possibly his last home Test, bowled with plenty of fire and tried every trick in his bag, bowling from round the wicket, teasing the batsmen with wide half-volleys and then with the short stuff, but today, he came off second-best.
The highlight of the session was the way Smith and Kirsten neutralised the threat of Vettori. On a pitch that - despite some rough areas outside the left-handers' off stump - was still an excellent one for batting, both used their feet regularly against him, not to tonk boundaries but to work him with the spin just wide of mid-on for ones. And when Vettori altered his length, the batsmen were waiting on the back foot to turn it away behind square for more singles. It was risk-free cricket, and it added to the frustration for Vettori and Stephen Fleming.
After working their way through a critical runless phase, Smith and Kirsten slowly turned it on: Cairns was slashed through gully for four by Kirsten, ending a sequence of 19 consecutive singles by both batsmen, while Vettori was lofted for four over mid-on.
The over that completely shifted the momentum was the 55th, Vettori's tenth and last of the match. Smith creamed an on-drive and a flick for two fours, in between chopping one past slip for two, as 12 came from the over. Vettori went into the drinks break - the second of an extended morning session - completely demoralised; Smith and Kirsten went in for the breather with victory well in sight, and the target whittled down to 73.
The personal landmarks for both batsmen came immediately after play resumed - Kirsten clipped one from Oram to square leg for three to bring up his 34th Test fifty, and next ball, Smith eased a four to midwicket for his seventh century. Kirsten's wicket was a bit of a dampener, but he had done enough to ensure that his swansong would end in a memorable victory for South Africa.
S Rajesh is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.