Smith lauds South Africa's 'immense' record
Before Graeme Smith went in for ankle surgery in May, the doctor gave him a worrying warning. "If this doesn't work, I don't know what I am going to do," he said to the South African captain.
Smith had suffered an ankle impingement in April last year, which ruled him out of the IPL, and had chronic ankle pain for a period of time before that. He had an operation last year before South Africa's tour of England but this year needed another - one he refers to as "major," - because the problem had not been entirely solved. The recent one, which meant he had cut short his first season with Surrey, involved putting two pins into his heel to correct a stress fracture and would keep him out of the game for six months, much longer than the ten weeks he had on the sidelines 2012.
"I had a lot of time to reflect on my career and I wondered if there would be more," he said. Smith didn't have to explain his fear that he thought there was a chance he may not take the field again because it was obvious from the pride he took in his own performance.
"I worked really hard to get to where I am now. To have come back and scored a double hundred in these conditions - almost sub-continental and with the heat - is something I will never forget. I am proud of it. I will cherish this innings for the rest of my life."
His 234 was the biggest individual difference between South Africa and Pakistan in Dubai and it was as much a personal achievement as it was a team feat. Without Smith's innings, a canvas painted by hard grind rather than attractive strokeplay, South Africa would not have had the platform from which it did not matter that their lower-order collapsed. Without his knock, they could have lost the match and their record run on the road could have ended.
Cricketers often claim numbers don't matter to them until they've called it a day but there are two that mean a great to deal to South Africa right now. The No.1 ranking is the first of them. They would not have lost it had they been defeated 2-0 in this series but their lead would have been substantially cut. Their unbeaten away streak since 2006 is the other because it explains, without needing to use too many words, why they are the top-ranked Test team.
South Africa have not won a series in the subcontinent, apart from victories in Bangladesh, since beating Pakistan in 2007 but they have drawn in India and now, in the UAE. That speaks about their ability to "find a way," as Smith likes to put it to win in conditions they are unaccustomed to and which are intended to work against them.
It illustrates what Smith and AB de Villiers' innings showed: how to construct scores on pitches which take turn, outfields which are slow and bowlers who know how to exploit the conditions with movement and spin. But on the fourth day of this match, it was their bowlers' ability which was highlighted.
Despite being kept in the field for much longer than they expected, the attack barely strayed from their plans. They were disciplined in length, using the short ball as a threat rather than a regulation delivery, and understanding the need to pitch it up. Even when Misbah-ul-Haq and Asad Shafiq looked as though they would bat out the day, the bowlers did not panic and held their control.
Part-time left-arm spinner Dean Elgar took advantage of a lapse in concentration from Misbah and then South Africa knew it was just a matter of time. They finished Pakistan off before the end of the day to extend their record of adaptability to include the UAE.
"Once they got in and the ball got soft, it became difficult," Smith admitted. "We controlled the run-rate and they were never scoring at more than 2.5 to the over and we knew if we kept doing that, there was going to be one opportunity and Dean got that one opportunity."
They have now gone 12 series without being beaten away from home and Smith thinks that has the makings of the start of a legacy similar to the Australia and West India sides of old. "I don't want to be throwing that label around to the public just yet, I think we still have a long way to go but I don't think many teams in the current set-up can travel as well as we do and be able to perform in the different environments and under the different pressures," he said.
"I don't think the team gets enough credit for that. It's an immense record and we are very proud of it. We want to go on and win more series, dominate, we want to play good cricket set a standard and we are on the right path."
How South Africa have managed to win away from home is, according to Smith, down mostly to experience. "Part of playing away from home is finding a way to morph in those conditions," he said. "We have a great understanding of that and how to work our way into conditions."
That was why, unlike his surgeon, Smith never got to the point where he did not know what would work. At 1-0 down in the series, South Africa were confident of coming back. And despite Pakistan batting fluently with six wickets in hand, Smith had no doubt his bowlers would complete the job.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent