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South Africa had won the series and enhanced their No. 1 ranking before the Centurion Test against Pakistan, but they were in no mood to relent
Firdose Moonda in Centurion
February 24, 2013
As testament to how committed South Africa were to not easing up for the dead rubber in Centurion, one needed to look no further than Jacques Kallis. On the eve of the Test, he turned up for his first optional practice in years, according to most of his team-mates.
As it transpired, Kallis injured his calf while training and missed the match, but that paved the way for Kyle Abbott to make a memorable nine-wicket debut and contribute to South Africa's whitewash of the series, something they don't usually achieve.
South Africa have not had to play many Tests where the result would have no bearing on their series. The last time that happened was in Australia in 2008-09. They are used to pressure at Test level and, unlike in limited-overs cricket, it has not been their undoing.
This time, South Africa faced the challenge of complacency. With the series won and the No.1 ranking secure, they were the side that had nothing to lose, but they didn't want to lose and that was the difference.
"To win so convincingly in this Test was important," Graeme Smith said, after his team beat Pakistan by an innings inside three days. "In matches like this, it's very easy to be soft or not to give commitment to the cause. Even if you are 10% off your game at this level, then you are not going to be able to produce a performance. To see our batsmen front out and our bowlers put in the hard yards shows good signs as a team. It shows we are hungry and we have good determination."
It was to South Africa's benefit that they had two young and unestablished players coming into the XI. Rory Kleinveldt and Kyle Abbott were both keen to stake their claim as next in line and they succeeded to different degrees. Kleinveldt bowled well with little reward in his first spell of the first innings and again in the second, while Abbott had a dream debut.
Abbott said complacency was the buzzword used in the build-up to the match and Smith confirmed the management wanted to zero in on it. "This team is about maturity and professionalism. The focus has been good. The guys understand what it takes and have been preparing that way."
The upshot was South Africa winning all their Tests in the home summer. The last time they achieved that was in 2002-03, when they beat Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan in two Tests each to finish 6-0. Smith had only just started his career then and is certain the team he is charge of now is better than the one he first made mark in then. "I've said before that this is the best team I have played in as a South African cricketer but that doesn't mean they won't be big challenges ahead." That realisation is what makes this side more grounded than teams of the past.
Their ability to be ruthless in an efficient rather than over-enthusiastic manner is another difference. South Africa have a reputation for playing the game hard. Now, they play hard and methodically. "We've managed to play a positive brand of cricket," Smith said. "We've been on the front foot but it has not been a brash style of cricket, it's a clinical one."
The surgical chopping up of opposition is something South Africa developed abroad - they have been unbeaten overseas since 2006 - and Smith was keen to apply that at home. "Coming back from a long time on the road, we could have taken it easy home but we wanted to play well here," Smith said.
Crowds in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Centurion got to experience their champion side. Durban lost out, but through their televisions they would have seen that perhaps South Africa will return to Kingsmead stronger than before. Next season will be the Test of that. Stadium attendances were higher than in previous seasons and attention on the team was greater because of their success.
Milestones piled up, especially for Smith, who is now the darling leader, having spent much of his decade in charge fighting the tide. His own relaxed nature is proof that he is finally comfortable in his own space. "Everything is a stepping stone to the next. It's about making sure you stay focused, respect the position you are in and the people you come up against. It hasn't been easy but I am confident and happy with the way I have been able to handle the pressure of the job. The inner strength and support I've had is something I am extremely proud of."
He wants more. Smith is no longer the man who wanted to walk away from leadership after the 2011 World Cup. He is now the captain that wants to sail the ship into unchartered territory. Although he says the word "dynasty" was not taught to him at school, he knows he is building one.
"We'd love to win as the South African team. We'd love to play the game hard, in the right spirit and challenge all around the world. I'd love to look back one day and see that we were part of something special. And for as long as I can, I want to make the most of it."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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