England v SA, 3rd Investec Test, Lord's, 5th day August 20, 2012

Smith's South Africa come of age

The growth of Graeme Smith as captain can be seen reflected in his team as South Africa finally ended their wait to be crowned No. 1

Not many cricketers can say they have grown to be men as international cricketers. Some of them start as men already, some of them remain boys forever but very few of them make their most important developments as professional sportsmen. Graeme Smith is one of the few who has.

Sometimes you can see those phases at play all on the same day. When Matt Prior and Graeme Swann were engineering a classic, Smith's forehead was frazzled into a frown. He chewed the index finger on his right hand, as he so often does when thinking. He looked older and it was an age gained through the rigours of Test cricket.

Less than an hour later, when he took the low catch at first slip to remove Prior that left only fingernails on England's hold on No. 1, he charged like a young boy. There was victory in his eyes again. He watched as Vernon Philander's seam movement and Jacques Kallis hands finished England off and he held up that same finger that was being chewed earlier. He mouthed the magic words, "Number one".

"All I keep thinking is that it stuck in my left hand, that one catch, that's the one moment that I am most conscious of," Smith said, looking at his hand. "These three fingers managed to hang on to Matt Prior, who was playing unbelievably well."

It was as though a new chapter of Smith's life had opened in front of the Lord's pavilion: the life where he will be in charge of the best team in the world. Smith has waited a long time for that - longer than any other captain in world cricket.

When Smith took over as captain, the ICC has only just introduced a ranking system and South Africa were placed second. At the time, the early 2000s, no one but Australia could have been first anyway. South Africa stayed second for about 18 months before slipping into obscurity and then getting themselves back up. As far as they got, their ceiling sat at being second best, save for a few months in 2009 when a concoction of some good away form and other results combined to place them fleetingly on top.

Smith emerged as something of a prodigy on the tour to England in 2003, his first major assignment. His double-hundred at Lord's, his slaying of Nasser Hussain and the strength of his youth made South Africa a team that looked as though it could achieve more. As Smith became an adolescent captain, however, the South Africa team followed him into a period of indecision and uncertainty. Those years included series loses on the subcontinent, to Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, a series defeat at home to England and more misery at the hands of Australia.

They may not have had the players capable of overcoming those situations but they also lacked the will and the drive. Only later, when the party years had ended and adulthood was calling, did the team and Smith start to change. Focus began under Mickey Arthur, under whom there was a push to mould a specific type of cricket side. The assembly line of allrounders was stopped and there was a move to specialists. The batting unit had the fat cut off and took on more muscle on top, meat in the middle. The bowling became a crop of genuine specialists with varied skills.

Results were steady and occasionally spectacular, with series wins in England and Australia and a strong record away from home. The team matured and Smith, the man, matured with them. He was more confident and as a result more thoughtful in his decision making. On that second trip to England, Smith scored runs when South Africa needed it but more importantly, he led South Africa the way they needed to be led.

Smith took charge of situations that would previously have gone without a shepherd, such as the fourth innings at Lord's in 2008. He showed players who had been in the squad for longer than him how to do the same and had an impact on younger players so that by the time South Africa went to Australia at the end of the year, AB de Villiers and JP Duminy were in a position to operate the same way.

The only reason South Africa could not firm their grasp on greatness then was because they lacked the same thing Smith did - an added element of creativity. They had some cricketing flaws, the uncertainty at No. 6, the lack of a third seamer and the inability to produce quality spinners. Their biggest flaw came from somewhere else, though, the place where a certain strain of mental toughness is found.

"In the last year, Smith has grown almost as much as he did in the eight before, under the guidance of Gary Kirsten's management team"

In the last year, that has changed. Smith has grown almost as much as he did in the eight before then, under the guidance of a new management team led by Gary Kirsten. From someone who reacted angrily to even the slightest hint of disagreement, such as during India's visit in 2010, when Smith grew more agitated every time he was asked about the opposition greats, he has become someone who could handle those things more delicately. These days, he considers issues before reacting and even if he is faced criticism, he is able to control his anger.

Smith was forced to change in the aftermath of the 2011 World Cup, when he did not return home with the squad but flew to Ireland to propose to his partner, Morgan Deane. A public outcry and calls for his head made him question his own position and he returned to South Africa determined to win back hearts and minds. He did it the way someone who has lived a life through cricket does. Centuries against Australia in both the Tests and ODIs went a long way to giving Smith his public credibility back and he accepted it graciously, not greedily.

He and Deane are now married and have a young daughter, who was born mid-series and the good wishes they received were an indication that Smith is one of the most popular sportspeople in the country. It has allowed him to come full circle and to realise the No. 1 dream in England with the support of a nation behind him. He acknowledged the role of the last 12 months in the wider context of what South Africa have achieved now. "It was a tough last year for me but to be the person that put South Africa in the space with so many different cricketing names is something I am definitely proud of," he said.

When England toured South Africa in 2009-10, the series was drawn 1-1. Popular sentiment was that South Africa were in a position to claim a 3-1 series victory, because the two draws came with England nine wickets down and fighting to survive. The word "deserve" was used to describe what South Africa should have done. It was a word that held no merit because as Smith has discovered, such a word can only be used when it is actually true.

"We felt we deserved to win the series," Smith said. "The way it finished was the perfect way for us because we have learned to win when things are tough and to come back when we are not ahead of the game. We had to win tough this time.

"There's a real sense of happiness and excitement now but there's also calmness that we have achieved where we wanted to go and that we can carry it on. We don't just have hope that we can carry on, there is belief that we can do it."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent