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Smith presented with Test mace

Firdose Moonda

March 28, 2013

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Graeme Smith receives the ICC Test mace from Vince van der Bijl, Johannesburg, March 28, 2013
Graeme Smith, flanked by Chris Nenzani and Fikile Mbalula, receives the ICC Test mace from Vince van der Bijl © Getty Images
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It has been more than seven months but Graeme Smith still remembers the feel of the second new ball that nestled in his right hand late in the afternoon of August 20, at Lord's.

He remembers the way it moved off the seam after Vernon Philander released it, tempting Matt Prior. He remembers the way England's valiant wicketkeeper moved towards it in an effort to drive. He remembers it taking the edge and then flying to him, low down. He remembers holding on. But most of all he remembers how important it was that he did.

"That last over Vernon bowled, when Matt Prior nicked off, there had been a build-up of pressure up to that point and then it just broke. The last day was ebbing and flowing and then the next ball Steven Finn nicked off to Jacques [Kallis] and we were number one. That's the emotional moment that sits with me," Smith said in Johannesburg, where he received the ICC Test mace and a cheque for US$450,000 for him and his team.

In fact, Smith has been holding the mace ever since South Africa took it off England. They travelled with it to Australia where they retained in even though, as Smith put it, "we could have so easily lost touch of something we worked so hard for," and kept it through home series against New Zealand and Pakistan. The difference now is that South Africa are in possession of it at the ICC's cut-off date for the first time.

Vince van der Bijl, who handed over the prize, recalled that every year since 2009, South Africa have finished in second place. There's no better way to explain how often they have been nearly men than that. For the Test side, that has changed.

South Africa are undefeated in 15 Tests dating back to December 2011 and have not lost a series in four years. They won all five of their home Tests this summer to open the gap between themselves and the nearest challenger, England, to 14 points. Moreover, van der Bijl pointed out that the total number of points South Africa have accumulated to reach No. 1, 128, is significantly more than India, England (both 118) or Australia (110) had when they received the mace in previous years.

"We feel that we belong in this place," Smith said. "It feels more natural than we had it before. We've earned our right to be there and every player wants to achieve more." South Africa's desire seems to set them apart and has played an important role in their current dominance, which is so overwhelming that if the planned Test Championship had taken place this year, they would have been favourites to win it.

Its postponement to 2017 has disappointed many, including Smith, but he hopes the team can maintain their good run to come into contention for it in the future. "It's important we don't take for granted what we have achieved," Smith said. "There is a lot more that is out there for us. Our first challenge is in October against Pakistan in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. If we can win there, that will be another big stepping stone for us.

 
 
"You have brought hope in the sport of cricket, you have brought hope to the people of South Africa. We are very proud of you" Sports minister, Fikile Mbalula
 

"The Test Championship is still a fair distance away and there is enough ahead of us that we would like to achieve. But if we could get there still as the best team in the world, that would be great. We wish the Test Championship was sooner but it gives us an opportunity to build an even stronger team and we have the opportunity to lead the way next season. We have something special at the moment. Maybe we can talk about legacies in a few years' time."

The country's sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, who was also present at the mace ceremony, believes the building of that dynasty has already begun. "This is history, not in the making, and it something that will be celebrated by generations to come. It is irreversible, it is championship material," he said.

"You have brought hope in the sport of cricket, you have brought hope to the people of South Africa ... We are very proud of you. I have seen you coming back fighting and I have seen that resilience and I hope you can keep that going into the future."

Like many, he thinks the trophy cabinet will only be complete once they triumph in a 50-over tournament. "The only thing we are short of now is the World Cup," Mbalula said. "But it shows in our performance that we are preparing a team that will not choke at the next event but that will stand the test of time."

While the World Cup is held in high-esteem, the importance of Test cricket has been propped up recently. Van der Bijl pointed to the ICC's increasing of the prize money for No. 1 from US$175,000 to US$450,000 this year and Smith talked about the growing interest in the longer format that he has noticed at home.

"The success we've had as a team has impacted on our fans. We can see that in the stadiums and the support," he said, declaring the longest format in good health. "There is a core group of teams that are close in their own conditions, like India are very good at home and New Zealand have shown they are tough in their own conditions.

"It's exciting that you know sport is unpredictable, although we want to be as predictable as possible in that we want to keep winning. But it's great there is so much interest and that Test cricket has gone from strength to strength."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by AKS286 on (March 31, 2013, 14:56 GMT)

Congrats SA !!!! Captain & players well done great job.

Posted by Mambahunter on (March 31, 2013, 5:36 GMT)

We shall see! There is no more Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar is on his last legs! They are coming to SA soon and I can't see their young batting lineup being competitive in the face of Steyn, Philander, Morkel, Kallis, Abbott and De Lange!! There is also not much in the fastbowling reserves for India!!

Posted by sportofpain on (March 30, 2013, 23:01 GMT)

@Mambahunter - but they did. last time in SA was a draw. And in the two previous tours to England before the last one, India beat them in both. And in Australia it was 1-1 in 2003 and 1-2 in 2007 but remember the Sydney loss was 'doctored' and almost led to the tour being abandoned. Let's not speculate - this is a regenerating India with some considerable skill. SA will test them as always but let's just wait and watch.

Posted by AKS286 on (March 30, 2013, 9:06 GMT)

The rookies of Pak team thrashed India in India. Same pak team is thrashed in SA. What Steyn had done in motera's dead dusty pitch everyone knows. Steyn the captain of African Deadly Barrage. Great player does't mean RECORDS it means how you perform in difficult players.The performer in Unfavourable, hard, tough Situations makes you great and Every SA players performed & proves under that situation.

Posted by Mambahunter on (March 30, 2013, 8:56 GMT)

@ sportofpain I disagree, Indian won't take it from the proteas!! They can't buy a series win or draw in SA, Aus or Eng!!

Posted by   on (March 30, 2013, 6:19 GMT)

a top order consisting of the gutsy graeme smith,a man who hasnt scored a 100 in a losing cause,who has always led from the front in crucial run chases..alviro petersen,who has played some big knocks when the others failed to..a middle order comprising of 3 of the biggest names in modern day cricket,amla,kallis and AB..3 match winners..A lower middle order equally hard to break through wid players like faf and jp who can change their game to adapt to the situation..now the last 4 comprises of peterson,philander,steyn n morkel...the pace attack is undoubtedly the best in the world..the no1 and no2 bowlers,and the venomous morne..robbie p can always get u crucial wickets and score some healthy runs...so a side wid batting till almost no 11 and a bowling line,the oppositions shud rly worry about and excellent fielding abilities,they are by far the no 1 team in the world...and the rankings are just a mere reflection of how good they r...

Posted by SL_rockz on (March 30, 2013, 5:20 GMT)

well done SA you deserve to be number 1 .....Respect for you all....pirit of cricket lies in test cricket.....No 1 in tests means you a great in the herat of cricket which ages back to 1800's.....

Posted by SL_rockz on (March 30, 2013, 4:55 GMT)

Beat india ,pak and sri lanka in their own back yard...that is the next challenge ..We SL look forward till you come here to SL....We are so proud we were the most recet team to beat you in your own back yard in level a test series :) .... Yeah by looking at he way you thrashed PAK ,NZ in SA we should be proud coz we won a match damn it :)

Posted by NixNixon on (March 29, 2013, 22:00 GMT)

@Shan156 - thanks for your honesty

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