South Africa news March 28, 2013

Smith presented with Test mace

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