SA reaping rewards from readmission
When South Africa were reintroduced into international cricket in 1991, Graeme Smith was 10 years old. He was too young to understand the changes that were taking place in the society around him and, as part of the privileged few, he would not be able to see the effect of those changes until years later. Years such as 2003 when he took over as captain and 2012 when South Africa are about to benefit from those changes.
"We've been blessed that someone has harnessed the talent and brought it all together," Smith said at Lord's, when talking about the strength of the current South African side. "We are reaping the rewards now of a lot of hard work in the early days. There would have been a lot different decisions to get to this point where we are now."
South African cricket, in its most whole form, has only just turned 21. Before that, the majority of the country was excluded from playing the game at the top level so the true measure of the country's sporting strength could not be properly attained. For every Graeme Pollock, Mike Proctor and Garth le Roux, no-one knows how many other talented batsmen, allrounders and bowlers either played in competitions like the Hawa Bowl, from which they could progress no further, or gave up.
As much as South Africa will never know what they lost in terms of talent, they will also not know how good they could have been as a team. The 20 years of isolation meant that the talents of a generation were lost. Had South Africa competed then, they may have been a match for the West Indies and England or gone through the teething problems Australia did in the 1980s, as something to build on for the future.
They would also have been able to keep up with international cricketing trends, which could have made them even stronger. Jimmy Cook remembered that he often learned new things on the county circuit which he then took back to South Africa and implemented at Transvaal. Having more exposure to the world game is something he believed would have made South Africa a better side on readmission.
When unity was reached and South Africa allowed to play again, they had to start from a different place to any of their competitors. Not only were they somewhat out of touch with the times but they also had to concentrate on inclusion for all South Africans. At first, there was almost no emphasis on reintegration, then there was an official quota system and now, sufficient work has been done to give players of colour a real chance.
To say that enough has been done, would be too generous. There are still large parts of the Eastern Cape, black African cricket's stronghold, the Cape Flats, where players like Vernon Philander are bred and areas in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Johannesburg where there are sizeable Indian communities, that are without facilities and untapped.
Those problems affect levels of cricket lower down, though the top has developed layer upon layer of strength and South Africa has done more than just catch up with the rest of the cricketing world: it has out-run almost all of them. It is backed by stable team management and a prospering national board, even as it stumbles through a two-year long bonus scandal, its flagship product, the national team, have been unaffected. It could be even be argued that the opposite is true.
In two decades, they have done what other teams may have needed many more years to achieve. They have gone from beginnings that were shattered to a building phase that seemed to stagnate, especially in the mid-90s and early 2000s, to the brink of world No.1.
Smith believes that because they did not skip any of the steps on the ladder to the top, they will be in a position to capitalise now. "The important thing in South African cricket was always going to be consistency. With everything that was happening in the initial stages - growth, putting systems in place, academies, convenors of selectors, different cricket boards - there was a process of growth that needed to take place. You needed to go through that in South African sport to get where we are today."
Stable growth is what saw South Africa build up a record of not losing a Test series away from home in six years. But it needed a jolt to push them up a level and that came with the appointment of the new coaching staff in June last year. Gary Kirsten, Allan Donald, Russell Domingo and their many assistants have injected the one missing element into the squad - creativity. Under them South Africa have gone from solid to spectacular and seem ready to add successful to that list.
"The stability that was created around the team a few years ago has played a part in where we are today. There has been some good cricketing decisions and appointments. To have the type of management team we have around us has probably been the best appointment that we could have hoped for," Smith said.
He did not acknowledge his own contribution but it is one that cannot be ignored. Smith has played a massive role in blending consistency and innovation, something only a leader who is secure and sufficiently experienced can do. When he takes the field at Lord's, he will break Allan Border's record for most Tests as captain, an achievement he holds dear.
"It's important for me to say that I am extremely proud to have been able to last as long in the job as I have," he said. "I definitely don't see myself in the echelons of an Allan Border or Clive Lloyd or Steve Waugh or Mike Atherton or whoever. I've always tried to be the best I can be and I'm blessed to be given the opportunity from a 22-year old to have grown into the type of man and captain that I am today and hopefully we can achieve some special things."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent