'We were superb' - Smith

As a Liverpool fan, Graeme Smith knows a thing or two about epic comebacks and though this wasn't in the Istanbul category, the nine-wicket pasting of a sorry England side was an emphatic riposte from a team that took umbrage at the Battle of the Bottle headlines prior to the game.

Smith has struggled with his own form at times over the past year, and it was a measure of his strength of character that he never shied away from the harsh glare of criticism when it came his way. For much of the home series against India, he was a sitting duck against Zaheer Khan, but he kept working away on his game till things came together for captain and team.

Unlike others who can be churlish and thin-skinned in the face of bad press, Smith took it on the chin and moved on. And his strength of will was never better illustrated than on Tuesday when he threw himself forward to take that catch, and then pummelled 89 from 58 deliveries to make a mockery of the run chase.

"It was pretty emotional," he said afterwards, having finished things off with all of 184 balls to spare. "We knew what a big game it was. We built pressure from the word go, with the ball and in the field. Our skills were superb, and we made our own luck."

Having taken the decision to rest Makhaya Ntini, South Africa's spearhead over the past few seasons, it was vital that the other seam bowlers performed as Smith knew they could. And after Shaun Pollock and Charl Langeveldt had set the tone, conceding just nine in the first seven overs, the focus turned to the support cast. Andrè Nel, red in the face from more than just the sun, packed off Michael Vaughan and Kevin Pietersen, before Andrew Hall produced a spell straight out of a movie script.

"Hall's second spell was a great one," Smith said, looking at the man seated next to him. His first spell had been tight, five overs that went for just 10, but a second three-over burst fetched him four wickets for just six runs. Having struggled to get the conventional inswinger away, England had no answer whatsoever to the reverse-swing.

"The wicket was very similar to what we see in South Africa," Hall said. "Everybody bowled exceptionally well. Today, it was my turn to cash in."

With the exception of Justin Kemp, who bowled three unremarkable overs for 16, every gear in the bowling machine meshed perfectly, with Jacques Kallis accounting for the dangerous Andrew Strauss and Pollock conceding a mere 17 from his 10 overs.

"It was a very difficult decision," Smith said when asked about Ntini's omission. "The discussion started after the last game. We were looking for more throughout the 50 overs. Shaun and Charl bowled superbly today with the new ball, and they're capable of changes of pace at the end. But Makhaya's a great team man and we'll be reassessing before the next game."

Before the game, there was much talk about South Africa's tendency to freeze on the big stage, and Smith reckoned that the romp to victory over England had answered more than a few questions. "It was a big pressure day," he said. "We demolished it [the chokers' tag]. Anything can happen in a semi-final. But today, we were superb."

Before the tournament, with South Africa atop the one-day rankings, few would have expected that they would have to wait till last to book a semi-final place. But after an opening-round defeat to Australia, and further reverses against Bangladesh and New Zealand, they stormed the castle just before the drawbridge was pulled up.

Smith saw the struggle in a positive light. "We're really on a high now," he said. "If we'd been cruising along, we might not have had the reality [checks] that we'd had to face. It was great to see the character within the side. It's not a cliché to say that they all love representing the country. Hopefully, we can win the big game."

Questioned about what ailed English cricket, Smith didn't have much to say, though he pointed out that consistency in selection and sticking to a game plan had been an integral part of South African successes over the past 18 months. "It's allowed us to play a [certain] style of cricket," he said, and his views were echoed by Hall, who has been in and out of the XI despite usually being part of the squad.

Unless New Zealand pull off the most lopsided of victories in the trans-Tasman clash on Friday, it will be Australia who lie in wait for South Africa in the St Lucia semi-final. For the moment, Smith wasn't really bothered. "A semi-final is a semi-final," he said. "It's a big game no matter who you play. Anything can happen. We're just chuffed to be there."

He just smiled when a reporter mischievously asked him if the team would be having a few drinks to celebrate, and though he wasn't allowed to answer, few South Africans will grudge him a pint after an effort such as this. On a day for heroes, Smith was immense. So were his team.