Whisper it, but the nearly men have become the little train that could – and did. South Africa is number one in the world and did so despite coming dangerously close to being peppered with the c-word yet again. ANT SIMS reports from Lord’s.
Like the weather, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, cricket can be pretty unpredictable, no matter how much effort goes into predicting the trends. If anybody had said that the final day of the final Test between South Africa would involve 74-run partnership between Matt Prior and Graeme Swann which took England to the brink of nearly chasing down the highest fourth innings total they've ever chased, it would have been brushed aside as preposterous.
Thanks to a blitzkrieg knock from Jonny Bairstow, who hit 54 off 47 before being sent on his way, England managed to hang on by the skin of its teeth; there was a sense that the visitors might just pull a rabbit out of a hat. Prior and Swann combined and things got a bit nervy out in the middle, but South African skipper Graeme Smith reckons it’s all part of the beauty of the game.
"The fact that we could still lose on the final day is one of the wonderful things about this game. I felt that we deserved to win the series with the way we played, but that's not sport," said Smith.
"The way that it finished was the perfect finish for us. We need to learn to win when things are tough. We're not always ahead of the game and this Test forced us to win tough. We’re just happy it stuck.”
And stick it did. South Africa has looked the better team all round right from the start of the series. All the talk of under-preparation was greatly exaggerated and the team asserted its dominance in crucial moments to keep a foot on England’s neck. For their pains, they’ve been rewarded with the honour of becoming the number one- ranked Test side in the world.
“The initial achievement of coming to England and winning 2-0 is all that we're thinking about right now. To have maintained such a high standard has been really good. To be number one is what we've pushed for, for a while now, and the next few days will be the time to enjoy it,” said Smith.
South Africa is used to performing well in England. The team did so in 2008 and the South African skipper reckons that doing it for a second time holds more water than the initial achievement four years ago.
"To come back here and do it again is a better feeling. We came here with England as the number one team in the world; they are tough to beat at home in these conditions. For us to beat them here is one of the great achievements of my career and I'm proud of each guy in the team. There were contributions across the board – everybody stepped up when they needed to,” Smith said.
Smith has been under fire from all corners all through his career, but had a particularly tough time last year when he didn't return home from India after South Africa crashed out in the World Cup. Smith averaged just 40.25 in his five Tests in 2011 and endured a torrid time against India and Sri Lanka - something which added fuel to the already raging fire of dodging the World Cup witch hunt. In the seven Tests he's played in 2012, though, Smith already averages 51.81 with hundreds away from home against New Zealand and England already in the bag. He has a tour of Australia left to go – and for the South African skipper to bounce back in England and achieve the milestone of becoming the most capped Test captain, this tour has certainly been special.
"Last year was a really tough year for me and to come back like I have and perform and achieve these milestones means a lot. Sometimes you just have to let your cricket do the talking and I always knew that was going to be the case. To be the person that has put South Africa in the space where we have so many good cricketers and where we are such a solid unit is certainly a great achievement for me,” said Smith.
The series is done and dusted and South Africa has clinched the number one spot despite some very squeaky bums at Lord’s. Cricket fans will be forgiven for feeling short-changed, though. After the abomination form England that was The Oval, they came back strongly and fought hard and the series ebbed and flowed into a complex tapestry of fantastic cricket. Yes, five Tests would have been great, but it would have only really benefited two teams. Instead of drowning in dismay about the curtness of the series, it should be taken at face value: a whirlwind affair which started with a storybook romance, hit a snag and then nearly unravelled – only for Prince Charming to come swooping in and rescue the damsel in distress. And they will live happily ever after, or, at least, until the damsel travels to Australia in November. DM
Photo: South Africa's captain Graeme Smith signals after South Africa defeated England in the third cricket test match at Lord's in London August 20, 2012. REUTERS/Philip Brown