'We never gave up' - Smith
Weighed down by his own batting woes and shocked by the manner of the 123-run defeat, Graeme Smith had cut quite a disconsolate figure after the first Test at the Wanderers. Less than three weeks later though, the mood was very different, after a five-wicket win that he called one of the highlights of his career. Victory in Durban in the Boxing Day Test gave South Africa a route back into the series, and at Newlands, on a surface more suited to the Indians, Smith's side came back magnificently to script a famous final-day triumph.
"I think it's a massive win in all of our careers, to come back from 1-0 down in a three-Test series," he said after the game. "I remember after the Wanderers [defeat] being asked how difficult it would be. Realistically we knew how difficult it would be. I think we just played superb cricket. We've never given up, and shown character at key moments. To win in Durban like we did was obviously fantastic. But this win here at Newlands, considering the conditions and considering that they were 254 for 3 at the end of day one, was incredible."
They had to do it the hard way, with unseasonal rain keeping the players off the pitch for more than three hours after Smith and Shaun Pollock had given the team a rollicking start in the morning. "Obviously a little bit of panic starts to set in," said Smith, when asked about the mood in the dressing room as the rain poured down. "You don't know when it's going to stop. The Black southeaster is always rare, and you don't know if it's going to stop or not. Polly and I had huge momentum going into that rain delay. We were definitely on top of the Indian team at that stage. They were panicking. Virender Sehwag was coming on. It was disappointing to come off. But having got back on and finished off the game, we're pretty relaxed now [laughs]."
The decision to move Pollock up to No.4 proved an inspired one, though Smith accepted that it had been laced with risk on a pitch where Anil Kumble was expected to wreak havoc. "I phoned Polly last night and told him that I was thinking about moving him up to bat with me in the morning," said Smith. "Between the new ball, which was difficult, and the reverse-swinging stage, there was a time where you could score pretty freely. I think both teams did. This morning, it was important for us to take the initiative up front. Shaun's the guy with all the experience and the ability, and he's a good thinker on the game. It was the right choice and luckily it paid off. It was one of those decisions you live or die by."
After Smith and Pollock departed, it was left to Jacques Kallis and Ashwell Prince to seal the win, though Kallis exited just two runs before the stands erupted in joy. "There were one or two discussions that took place after I got out," said Smith, when asked if he had been tempted to promote an attacking player like Mark Boucher or Herschelle Gibbs. "I think Ashwell's becoming a serious pressure player. He's a man stepping up on a lot of big occasions for us.
"He proved it last year against Australia, and he's proving it again now. His game's really compact, and at that stage another partnership would have got us home. You've got to rely on your guys to do the job. We'd taken the one risk, and the guys did a superb job of taking us home."
The win was all the more satisfying considering that it came on a pitch that Wasim Jaffer described as an "Indian" one after his opening-day century. "Those that say we can't produce spinners' wickets to develop slow bowlers should have seen this one," said Smith with a grin. "It was disappointing, but it was fantastic to win on it. It means we've learnt from our trips to the subcontinent. Our ability to play spin, which everyone questions all the time, has definitely improved.
"There were two factors in this game. One was the reverse swing, with the dry surface and some very skilful bowlers. And obviously, the spinners played a huge part. Our ability to put India under pressure in their second innings was the key. They didn't score runs and we picked up four wickets after lunch. That gave us the initiative. Still, chasing 211 on a pitch like that is a huge achievement."
Smith wasn't overly critical of India's tactics on the final day, though he did admit that one particular decision perplexed him. "We were saying at the end of the game: what if Tendulkar had bowled 20 overs [he bowled 3.1]? He was getting a huge amount of turn and has a great googly that guys struggle to pick."
Kumble never posed the threat that he was expected to, and Smith said that his batsmen deserved a lot of credit for that. "I think the key for me was to get off strike as much as I could, and to keep mixing up whether I went forward or back," he said, talking of his approach on the final morning. "Any bowler that feels a bit of pressure doesn't settle into a line and length. And I also had to get rid of silly point [laughs]."
In the final analysis though, the win was set up by some superb bowling on the fourth day, with India's batsmen retreating into a defensive shell from which they never emerged. "We knew that we really had to squeeze India after lunch," said Smith. "I heard comments that we were a bit negative with [Paul] Harris bowling into the rough. At that stage, we just wanted to make sure that India went nowhere. We knew that if we could get the ball to reverse, we had the guys to make the ball work for us. Paul did a superb job in partnership with Jacques [Kallis] initially and then Shaun [Pollock].
"Shaun bowled best with the reverse-swinging ball in the first innings and he did it again. You don't get to 400 Test wickets if you don't know what you're doing. He's the guy that's stepped up the game for us beautifully throughout the series. I don't know how many more compliments we can give the guy but he's certainly a superb asset for us [smiles].
Pollock was the man of the series, for his 187 runs and 13 wickets at a Scrooge-like average of 16. After a couple of seasons of relative underachievement, he had an outstanding series against India, and was full of praise for the manner in which the team had bounced back. "All the guys have shown a lot of character, from the guys who walked in for their debuts, Morne Morkel and Harris, to the guys who were perceived to be out of form [Smith] that bounced back and got big runs," he said. "We've shown what a fighting team we can be.
"We're not proud of where we're rated in the world rankings at the moment. We're working on trying to get up, and that was a motivating factor for us."
The last word has to go to Smith, who led his team magnificently when the chips were dwindling and there were calls from a few quarters for his head on a plate. "Senior players are always the ones who are watched," he said with no trace of rancour in his voice. "Even when we lost Jacques [Kallis, to a back injury] in Durban, a number of guys stepped up at the time. And in this game, our senior guys all contributed superbly.
"And it's not only what you see on the field. It's what happens in the dressing room, what they say to the young guys, the experience they bring. That's invaluable. At one point, Makhaya [Ntini] was asking me if he could go and bat next [laughs]. He backed himself as a senior player to go and finish the game. As a captain, to have guys in your team who want to take responsibility is a huge asset."
How Rahul Dravid must long for the same.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo