Smith takes South Africa from solid to ruthless
Milestones have been lining up for Graeme Smith and the Newlands Test presents another two.
Smith will captain South Africa for the 100th time (at the Wanderers, he was captaining for the 100th time in Test cricket having once led the World XI). As special as that will be for Smith, the other statistic will be more significant. If South Africa win, it will be their fifth consecutive victory and their best run with Smith as captain.
South Africa's longest winning streak was a period between 2002 and 2003 when they notched up nine wins in succession. The captaincies of Shaun Pollock and Smith straddled that period and Smith was only in charge for the last two, against Bangladesh. In that time they also beat Australia (once), Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Smith's period in charge has been defined by solidity, stability and not losing. Consecutive wins in individual Tests did not stand out as a characteristic but series wins and series draws when it mattered did, particularly away from home. What that pointed to was that South Africa were strong on the defence and capable on the attack, but sometimes too cautious.
Now, that has been replaced by ruthlessness. It helps that South Africa's Test attack is penetrative all the time. Opposition the world over, most recently Brendon McCullum and Dav Whatmore, have praised them for their relentlessness. They apply wave after wave of pressure, they each present different challenges, there is no one to target and they do not give an inch.
They also get the batsmen out of trouble when they need to, When South Africa were bowled out for 225 in Perth, Dale Steyn led the attack to bowl Australia out for 163. Similarly in Johannesburg, when Pakistan's attack dismissed South Africa out for 253, Steyn's 6 for 8 ensured Pakistan were plucked for 49. It is not too often that South Africa's line-up stumbled but when they do, they have the security of knowing that the bowlers can probably make up for it.
It is worth noting that the batsmen have only been bowled out for less than 300 in an innings four times in the last 22 innings. The main credit for that must go to the top four. Smith, Alviro Petersen, Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis operate exactly as a top order must. They see off the new ball and lay a platform that allows AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis to play with complete freedom.
De Villiers has benefited most from that. He said he could not remember a time when the team was "10 for 3 or 5 for 2," and he has to do a rescue job. De Villiers does not suffer from short-term memory problems. Since becoming world No.1, South Africa have played six Tests and have only had a total of less than 50 for the loss of three wickets once. That was in Adelaide against Australia in a match they drew.
Smith confirmed there has been a conscious move to ensure the likes of de Villiers and du Plessis can play an aggressively and take the game away from the opposition. "Test matches are about pattern of play and setting the base up," he said. "There is a lot of experience in the top four and we are prepared to do the hard work. We know it's not just about flashy play for us."
With the serious men upfront, the exciting ones further down and bowlers who can operate in just about any situation, Smith's team seems to be able to do it all. The biggest change he can identify in them is that they have become more astute. "It's about big days and big sessions and making big impacts," he said. "When the game needs to be stepped up, we've found the extra bit."
The Newlands Test will have some of those moments. A series victory could be achieved there, which will ensure South Africa go to Centurion under no pressure, a fifth consecutive match will be won which will ensure they continue with their new-found intent and a proud record at the ground that Smith calls the "marquee," venue in the country. It will also be a good way to send off Mark Boucher, who will have his farewell on the third day.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent