“We felt we deserved to win the series. The way it finished was the perfect way for us because we have learned to win when things are tough and to come back when we are not ahead of the game. We had to win tough this time.
“There’s a real sense of happiness and excitement now but there’s also calmness that we have achieved where we wanted to go and that we can carry it on. We don’t just have hope that we can carry on, there is belief that we can do it.”
When Graeme Smith marched into England this time with his troops for the 3-Test match series, there was a sense of purpose; a purpose to conquer what he believed was theirs, with the power and assets to achieve it. By the end of the series, they did not just beat England convincingly, but also earned the title as the No.1 ranked Test team in the world.
When Smith was made captain of the South African team, succeeding Shaun Pollock after the 2003 World Cup, who would have thought that one day he would lead the team to the zenith of success? He was assigned the responsibility of the team at a time when South Africa was placed second – on the newly-introduced ranking system that the ICC had put into place – behind Australia. They clung onto the spot for about a year and a half only to slip into insignificance before working their way uphill. They always remained one but the best – barring a brief period where they sat at the top owing to some good results and an inspiring away record in 2009.
Graeme Smith materialized as a prodigy during South Africa’s tour to England in 2003, which was one of his first major assignments at which he excelled – he scored a double century at Lord’s and the magnitude of the massacre of Hussain’s team made it believable that the South African side could reach greater heights, but what followed was vacillation and disappointment: losses in the subcontinent to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, along with home series defeat to England followed by more despair at the hands of Australia. What did South Africa lack? Was it the determination or the focus? Was it the drive or the dearth of solutions to their problems of choking under pressure? Clearly, Smith had a lot to look into.
Under the schooling of Mickey Arthur, there seemed to be an overhaul in approach – he brought in the prime factor required – focus. He drilled into them the longing to want to be amongst the best if not the best, and they started believing, which is where it all began. There was a clear change in Smith: captaincy was growing onto him and the captaincy boots brought him comfort. There was a sense of belonging in the role. Their prime focus then was to develop specialists and phase out the abundance in all-rounders eventually. There were defined roles for everyone in the team and skills honed. The team had a bunch of specialist batsmen at the top led by Smith himself, the core in the middle and a bunch of highly skilled bowlers with adept abilities.
What followed was pretty much evident with the preparation and attitude of the team: consistent and positive results. They improved their record of away games beating both England and Australia. He grew as a captain and led the team exactly the way they needed to be led – with thoughtful consideration of the teams’ strengths and weaknesses. He grew in confidence with every game, but South Africa still couldn’t make the cut in large-scale tournaments rubbing the chokers tag in. But he incessantly continued to lead from the front and took control of the situation whenever he could. He groomed senior players to be accountable and made sure the impact they would have on the fresh blood would be massive and so has been.
They lacked what it took to be the best – something that the Australians possessed in abundance – mental toughness. They succumbed under pressure, but that has been something that has changed in the recent past. Smith has been guided by the genius of Gary Kirsten who as always has operated behind the curtains of accomplishment. Going by Kirsten’s history, it is quite evident where Smith’s team in headed. As for Smith, he has grown leaps and bounds in the recent times only to lead his team to the pinnacle of success.