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Firdose Moonda in Centurion
February 21, 2013
The last time Graeme Smith captained South Africa in a dead rubber, the team had just won a series in Australia. Little else mattered but Smith batted with a broken hand to try to stave off defeat in the third Test even though it had no bearing on the bigger picture.
One of the most marked differences between the current South African side and the one of 2008-9 is that closing the deal at the earliest opportunity is more important to this lot. "We've been through some growth periods. Certain things didn't work then as they are now," Smith said. "Systems in the team are running a lot better and some processes are a lot more professional. We've taken that step that we were searching for."
The focus on being more clinical has paid off. South Africa stand on the cusp of their most successful period under Smith. Never before under Smith's captaincy have South Africa won all the Test matches in a home summer as they could with victory in Centurion. Never before have they won five in a row as they have now and never before have they been as determined to keep the intensity up.
"Being mentally sharp is going to the challenge but I think we will be," Smith said. "The energy at training was good and we would love to finish our summer of Test cricket on a positive note."
A whitewash will be nothing more than a show of dominance but it is important in establishing themselves as ruthless, especially since South Africa disappear from the Test circuit after this match. Attention will fall on India's series against Australia and the Ashes and the No.1 ranked side in the world will have to wait until October before they play again.
The break in the schedule may rob South Africa of the chance to play at their peak but that is something no-one can control. They would have featured sooner had the July-August tour to Sri Lanka not been turned into a limited-overs only affair and Smith did not show too much disappointment at that. "We would love to have carried on the momentum we've started and to keep playing and playing well but when you've played for a long time you deal with things as they come."
Smith was even able to spot a positive in the long break before facing Pakistan in UAE in October. South Africa will use the Centurion Test to study their opposition closely in preparation for their return clash. "When we start playing again later in the year there won't be any time to find our feet again. Hopefully the confidence will be as strong as it is now. The squad is performing well as a group. We've got some highly skilled players. Hopefully we can pick up from that."
Growing that legacy is the immediate goal and winning in Centurion will go some way to realising that. It is also the chance for Smith to notch up another achievement. Should South Africa emerge victorious, Smith will have his 50th victory as Test captain, something no other leader has achieved. At Newlands he overtook Allan Border as the captain with the most Test victories and at the Wanderers, he became the only person to captain a team 100 times in Test cricket.
The accolades are so regular, Smith doesn't have the words to describe what they mean to him anymore, except to say he wants to keep going. "I'm running out of things to say. I am looking forward to that number growing even more. It's a great achievement for me and the guys that I have played with.
Hopefully when I reflect back on this one day I can say that as a team we did ourselves proud and not that we left ourselves short. I will be extremely proud to saying I could take South Africa to No.1 in the world and that we could stay there."
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