After India took the first Test at Johannesburg inside four days, Graeme Smith addressed the media - proud Indians, baying South Africans - and muttered about the poor manner in which his batsmen applied themselves, the inadequate pitch, and his own form. South Africa had just lost four of their last seven home Tests, and the pressure was well and truly on Smith, whose misery with the bat contributed in part to the miserable sequence of results. Scores of 5 and 10 took his tally for the last 10 Tests to 465 at 24.47, with just two half-centuries in 19 innings.
After South Africa stormed back at Durban, Smith comfortably took his seat in front of the same media and hailed the 174-run win as the best of his career. His job may have well been on the line, and a dropped Sachin Tendulkar sitter was replayed over and over again on the big screens, but Smith redeemed himself the slightest with a confident 58 in the second innings. It was an innings that would decide the outcome of the series, as Smith took the confidence of that knock and pushed it to another level at Cape Town.
Twin half-centuries from his blade sealed the deal. Note this: when South Africa have won, Smith has averaged 67.38, with nine hundreds and seven half-centuries. When they've lost, that average drops to 26.82, with no hundreds. He didn't get a hundred at Cape Town, but he played very, very well, and South Africa won. In reply to India's first-innings 414, Smith hooked the first ball of South Africa's innings - by Zaheer Khan, who'd taken his number five times on tour - for six, albeit off the top edge, but that aggressive intent signified that the confidence and the desire was back.
A far more controlled pull shot through square-leg followed, and South Africa were well and truly on their way, thanks to Smith. After his explosive start he grew in confidence and hit a total of 14 boundaries, passing 4,000 Test runs in the process. What stood out was his footwork; where he inched forward and played across his pads to Zaheer earlier, here he met ball with bat and pad married, and drove with straight bat, not panache. He didn't receive too much on the pads, his favourite area, but rather than manufacture shots, he stuck to the basics. When he cover drove, the head remained still, when Anil Kumble dropped short, he got behind the line and worked runs on the leg side. In fact, much of Kumble's start ineffectiveness on a pitch tailor-made for him was Smith's supreme confidence against him.
He appeared set for his first Test hundred since April when he moved into the 90s with successive drives through mid-on off Zaheer, but an excellent catch by Virender Sehwag cut him short.
In the second innings, the hosts needed 211 to win, and after losing two quick wickets before stumps, Smith and nightwatchman Shaun Pollock resumed on 55 for two. They added a vigorous 56 to leave South Africa exactly 100 runs short when heavy rain forced a length delay. Smith fell for 55 after an early lunch, but Ashwell Prince took South Africa home. As he headed off the pitch, a beaming Smith was there to embrace him, and the image captured by the trigger-happy photo journalists was slapped across all the South African dailies.
After a dreadful run in the one-day series and the first Test, three solid half-centuries, some positive captaincy, and a series victory left Smith a happy man, and the scribes more than content, thought its likely the devil and god would have raged inside him as he addressed the media.
The numbers game
Smith jumped ten places in the ICC Player Rankings for Test batsmen following his man-of-the-match contribution of twin half-centuries at Cape Town.
He said - on the come-from-behind win
"To come back from 1-0 down means you have to show a lot of character. I'm proud of them all.With all the rubbish after the first Test it makes it even more meaningful. It was a really special victory for all of us and you can see the emotion in all the guys' faces."
He said - on the inspired move to promote Pollock to No. 4
"I phoned Polly last night and told him that I was thinking about moving him up to bat with me in the morning. This morning, it was important for us to take the initiative up front. Shaun's the guy with all the experience and the ability, and he's a good thinker on the game. It was the right choice and luckily it paid off. It was one of those decisions you live or die by."
Jamie Alter is editorial assistant of Cricinfo