England v South Africa, 2nd npower Test, Headingley, 4th day July 21, 2008

A force to be reckoned with

Graeme Smith has been here before. An overwhelming victory in very English-conditions at Headingley as South Africa take a series lead

Graeme Smith was full of praise for his bowling attack: 'For me there wasn't a lot on offer, but we put England under pressure' © Getty Images
Graeme Smith has been here before. An overwhelming victory in very English conditions at Headingley as South Africa take a series lead. The 2003 success was one of Smith's most stressful, and he says he slept very little, but this time it was much more comfortable. It doesn't come much more convincing than 10 wickets with a day to spare and in the process he has become South Africa's most successful Test captain, overtaking Hansie Cronje, with 28 victories.

It was news to Smith that he had created history - "I've only just found out". Thrust into the role at just 22, it took him a while to mature and, importantly, get the team he wanted, but over the past 18 months a new cohesion has emerged. "When you captain your country you want to see positive results," he said. "I feel like the team has developed really nicely and I feel like it's my team. To have those rewards, it's what you feel inside the dressing room that's the most important thing."

The maturing of Smith and his team has almost happened in parallel. It was evident in this match that every player knew their role. They are a settled unit and, if they retain the same side throughout this series, South Africa will overtake England's recently-set record of six matches unchanged. How quickly times change.

Whereas England fluffed their lines from start to finish, South Africa were all reading from the script from the moment Smith won the toss. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel skittled them for 203, before the match-deciding stand of 212 between Ashwell Prince and AB de Villiers. However, Smith picked out his team's fourth-day bowling performance - when the sun shone - as the most impressive part of the performance. This was how a five-man bowling attack was meant to work.

"In the first innings there was a bit there for us, but if I compare the two bowling performances this one was outstanding," he said. "For me there wasn't a lot on offer, we got a little bit of reverse swing, but we put England under pressure. They played a little frantically in the first innings, offering us a lot of chances, so it was nice to see our bowlers back where they can be.

"For me, it was the big moments in the game that we played better. The partnerships with Ashwell [Prince], Hashim [Amla], AB [de Villiers]. It's those sorts of things that make the difference and when you need people to stand up. We had the characters to do that."

As is often the case this was a feisty encounter, sparked into life by two contentious catches on the opening day. Smith made particular mention of de Villiers, who responded to the boos from the crowd and chirps from the England fielders with 174. "The Test was always going to be competitive," he said. "A lot of things happened, but I feel we handle everything in a very mature way. There was a lot of pressure from crowds and various situations. AB, especially, played a man's innings. The things he had to cope with, the boos and reaction. It's a credit to him."

Last week the feeling was relief after South Africa secured a draw at Lord's and in the glow of victory Smith still remembered the importance of that result. "It probably took a bit of pressure off us. The confidence we gained by taking England to five days and only performing at 60-65%, we knew that if we got things right we could put them under a lot more pressure and we've done that in this game."

However, it's not only a Headingley victory that Smith has experienced before. In 2003 South Africa let the advantage slip - something they have done on each of their tours since readmission - and his focus is now on ensuring that this repeat performance isn't followed by another failure to make it count.

"There's a lot of cricket to be played. In every England-South Africa series teams have fought back. Edgbaston offers us the chance to close the series out. But it's important we focus on our cricket, if we do that we believe we can go a long way towards winning.

"We are going to enjoy this moment, Edgbaston is a little bit of time away, but it's something we have been aware of all the time. I think the nice thing to know is that we are on the up and we can improve more."

Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer at Cricinfo