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Graeme Smith's side have firmly established themselves among the greatest South African teams, and he has set sights on achieving even more
February 25, 2013
It really was a lazy Sunday afternoon. Golden rays dripped onto sloping grass embankments where colourful umbrellas were the only things to break the palette of blue sky and green ground. Some ate, some drank, others reclined in leisure. The burble was neither shrill nor suggestive, it was constant and comforting.
It was summer time in South Africa. Let nobody tell you this time of year is anything but special. In fact Graeme Smith used those exact words to describe the Test team's success over the last two months which culminated on Sunday in Centurion.
Beating a hapless New Zealand and underprepared Pakistan in tailor-made conditions may not strike as victories worth celebrating with such gusto but still this was the summer of South African cricket's content. To borrow from Shakespeare, it was the season in which they hung their opponents' bruised arms for monuments and turned dreadful marches into delightful measures.
Winning consistently at home evaded South Africa in the same way triumphing away does other teams. Between 2009 and 2011, they did not register a series win at home even while they were conquering territory everywhere else.
Kingsmead was the main reason South Africa slipped up at home. They struggled on a pitch that has grown slower over the years and a support base that has been strongly in favour of subcontinental teams. Durban was promptly removed from the Test schedule but will be back next season. Given the strength of South Africa's performances, they have reason to believe they can overturn the hoodoo there.
The current South African Test squad has shown fearlessness that is matched by precision. Too often, teams attempt to play "brave cricket," which was a buzz word for the South African side not too long ago but forget that courage must not exclude attention to detail. Under Gary Kirsten, Smith's men have learned the balance.
They are able to recognise pressure situations and have the skill and mental aptitude to deal with them but they are also capable of transferring those moments onto the opposition. The best evidence of that can be seen from the schedule which listed 25 days of Test cricket this summer. South Africa only played 18. They enjoyed a full week off because of the strength of their performances. Although it meant gate revenue was lower at all grounds and sponsors return on exposure also suffered a little, it underlines South Africa's resolve.
Some call that ruthlessness but it is a little less rash than the word suggests. Others call it being clinical but it has more passion that that. It is a combination of applying themselves with intent and not letting the aggression cloud the end goal.
Only a team that is as mature as it is confident is able to execute that properly. South Africa have achieved that level of development because of the mix of the team which retains a strong enough core so rookies coming in have sufficient guidance and room to grow.
|South Africa's pace pack has been compared to the West Indian quartet of the 1980s. Pace and variation are their obvious parallels but a less talked about one is that South Africa also seem to have a second wave coming through. Rory Kleinveldt and Kyle Abbott and Marchant de Lange are good enough back up to Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander|
A substantial part of that core is Smith himself. The stability of his leadership cannot be underestimated, especially as it is now bearing its best fruit. Under Smith, South Africa have touched unprecedented heights and relived feats from eras past.
As a measure of why the five Test wins out of five this summer are worthy of so much praise they cannot be considered in isolation. Consider instead that the last time South Africa won all their Tests in a home summer, Smith was not even captain of the team. It was ten years ago, in the season of 2002-03 when South Africa beat Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan in two Test each. Four of those victories were achieved by an innings, two against Bangladesh. This summer, three of the five wins required South Africa to bat just once.
Similarly the whitewash over Pakistan should not be assessed without context. It was the first under Smith, in series of three Tests more, and the only the third time South Africa have achieved the feat. The two previous occasions where when Ali Bacher's team of 1969-70 beat Australia 4-0 at home and Hansie Cronje's men in 1998-99 blanked West Indies 5-0.
By beating Pakistan 3-0, this South African side has put themselves on the same plane as the previous two and can now be considered among the best the country has ever produced. They still have distance to travel because they can be ranked among the greatest of all time.
Small comparisons are already been made. South Africa's pace pack has been compared to the West Indian quartet of the 1980s. Pace and variation are their obvious parallels but a less talked about one is that South Africa also seem to have a second wave coming through. Rory Kleinveldt and Kyle Abbott and Marchant de Lange are good enough back up to Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander.
Smith has been compared to Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting because he is an inspirational captain. Morkel calls him "the voice," because when he talks, everyone listens. He does not do as much talking as he does leading by example. The team's record of never losing when Smith has scored a century remains intact and he is the leading run-scorer in successful fourth-innings run chases.
He is also aware that he has not done it all. "I feel grateful that the team and I were able to achieve something today and hope we can go on to achieve a lot more," he said. For the next seven months, there is no more than can be achieved. The break in South Africa's Test schedule is "disappointing," for Smith and cricket lovers the world over who will be denied watching a team at its peak.
The interruption in play will require South Africa to put major emphasis on their preparation before the next series, which is also where they most anticipated challenge lies. They will travel to the United Arab Emirates to play Pakistan with the knowledge of what happened to England when they went there as the No.1 ranked team and that winning in the subcontinent remains the final frontier.
Perhaps South Africa will only be considered truly great when they win series in India and Sri Lanka and that may be a fair way to measure them. They will have to wait until 2015 before they will have the chance to do that.
So for now, all they can to do is soak in the summer's last sunshine knowing that there will be few seasons as successful as this one. They may reflect on the words to Bryan Adams' song about carefree loving at the warmest time of year and realise if they had a choice maybe they'd always want to be here. Surely, these are some of the best days of their lives.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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