England v South Africa, 3rd npower Test, Edgbaston, 4th day August 2, 2008

Smith's greatest achieves closure for SA

The curse is finally lifted, and the identity of the man who has delivered South Africa's first series win in England for 43 years comes as no surprise


South Africa's most united team of all time has ended their longest wait © Getty Images
 

The curse is finally lifted, and the identity of the man who has delivered South Africa's first series win in England for 43 years comes as no surprise whatsoever. Graeme Smith's irrepressible willpower was first demonstrated to the English public way back in 2003, when - as the most mature 22-year-old imaginable - he scored back-to-back double-centuries, at Edgbaston then at Lord's, to announce a new chapter in his country's sporting history.

Today, however, he finally closed that chapter and looked forward to the next, after producing the innings that he declared, without equivocation, as his greatest yet. "I've had some really meaningful innings in my life, and the double-hundreds here last time have to go down among my greatest achievements," he said. "But ever since readmission, we have really strived for victory in England and have always been disappointed. It's bigger than just us, this victory, and so I have to say it's my best."

The importance of a South African victory in England cannot be overstated. When the coach, Mickey Arthur, declared on Friday evening that his side was "desperate" to win, he was speaking not only for the eleven men on the field, but those back home in South Africa who recognised that, almost two decades on from their readmission to international cricket, the time was nigh for closure. For Smith, it was as if he had set his agenda on his maiden tour five years ago, and was now ready to cement his ambitions.

"If you taken the whole bigger picture," said Smith, "of all the players who've come before us, those who've come here and given it their all and had the disappointment, as well as the many who haven't had the opportunity in the many years past, as well as the fans back home who can imagine what it's like. For us this was bigger than a cricket game, it was a huge moment and something we're really proud of."

South Africa's transformation since apartheid has been a long and often traumatic process, and the country's cricketing misfortunes have often been seen as a part of the healing. But under Smith the team has achieved a rare unity and consistency that, for the first time ever, has transcended racial politics. Their current series record reads seven wins and a draw in India, a run that ranks among the very best of all time.

What is more, it has been delivered by a team that can no longer be accused of tokenism. From Ashwell Prince to Hashim Amla, via the fading but unyielding Makhaya Ntini, and all the way to the young white stars, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel - all have been worthy members of a team whose next major assignment is a mouthwatering trip to Australia in December, where further ghosts await exorcism. It would have been unjust for them to fail, especially when you consider the turbulance that afflicted the England camp after their rout at Headingley.

 
 
But ever since readmission, we have really strived for victory in England and have always been disappointed. It's bigger than just us, this victory, and so I have to say it's my best - Graeme Smith on South Africa's achievement
 
And yet, for all the magnificence of the current South African team, their efforts would have come to nought had it not been for their imperturbable captain. The day began as the previous one had finished, with England in the ascendancy, stretching their lead through the efforts of Paul Collingwood and Ryan Sidebottom and then, after a relatively calm opening stand of 65, instigating a chaotic collapse of four wickets for 28 runs.

Neil McKenzie and a steamed-up Jacques Kallis failed to pick Andrew Flintoff's full length against the problematic pavilion sightscreen, and as the Edgbaston crowd erupted in recognition of the moment, Smith feared that the "hot-headedness" that can characterise South African sporting teams was about to come to the fore once again.

Not that he was afflicted by the same emotions, however. Far from it. "I couldn't control that," he said. "I was just hoping that the right-handers could start picking up those low full-tosses. For me it was just about a real focus on my own game. Bat and hope someone could bat with me, because I knew if we could get a decent total on the board we could get close, England might get desperate and try a few things, and give us a few free deliveries."

In the final analysis, that is precisely what happened, as the combative Mark Boucher emerged to exorcise his own demons from the 1998 Test series, not to mention the World Cup semi-final on this very ground one year later. But there was nothing free about the runs that Smith accumulated. It was fitting that his final score was 154 not out, because there cannot have been a more brilliant and meaningful matchwinning century scored in England since Graham Gooch took down the West Indians at Headingley in 1991.

Like Gooch 17 years ago, Smith batted through a barrage and, until Boucher's late role, found only token support from his colleagues. And symbolically he too batted on into the gloaming when others might have called it quits and returned to complete the job in the morning. Instead, he claimed the extra half-hour on the stroke of seven o'clock, and hurtled to victory in five further overs.

"I knew we had England tired because their seamers had bowled a lot of overs," he said. "The new ball was at the back of my mind - if we'd lost a wicket we had a bit of a tail - but eventually I thought: 'Let's go for it. We've got England on the ropes, so let's back ourselves.'"

And to think Smith might not even have taken part in this match. He pulled out of training on the eve of the game after suffering a back complaint while batting against Bangladesh A, and admitted afterwards that the problem had never entirely gone away. "It's been a bit sore, but I'm thankful I got on the field," he said. "I've been on a few painkillers, but at the moment there's a lot of adrenalin so I'm not feeling any pain."

Victory is always the best painkiller, but in South Africa's case, it extends beyond the fitness of their captain. The capitulations of 1994, 1998 and 2003 can at last be forgotten, and by blotting the date "1965" out of their record-books, the final link with the apartheid era has been severed. South Africa are a team going forward at high speed, and for their captain, the journey has never been so pleasant.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo