England have known for five years that Graeme Smith was a man possessed of phenomenal talent as a batsman. It was at Edgbaston in 2003, when their paths first crossed, that the tall, powerfully built left-hander, even with the extraordinary burden of captaining South Africa at 22, introduced himself by scoring 178 not out on the opening day of the first Test.
He turned that score into 277, still the highest individual Test innings by a South African, and, just in case anyone wondered whether it might have been a fluke, followed it with a match-winning 259 at Lord's in the second Test. No cricketing visitor to this country had announced himself quite so emphatically.
But perhaps it was only on Saturday, on the same Birmingham ground, that he gained England's unqualified respect as an international captain, with an innings notable not only for its technical skill but for courage and composure as he held his nerve to guide his team across the line.
Since they were readmitted to international cricket, South Africa have had a history of creating series-winning opportunities here but failing to take them, and there were moments in this match when England fought back with enough conviction that it seemed quite possible that another chance would slip through their grasp and the sides would go to The Oval all square.
Andrew Flintoff's inspired bowling on Thursday evening had kept England in touch against the odds and after Paul Collingwood – in the contest's other great show of personal fortitude – had made sure Smith's team would have to chase down a substantial target, the outcome was genuinely in the balance.
Indeed, it began to tip towards England on Saturday afternoon as Flintoff's full deliveries from the Pavilion End, with which South Africa had developed a fixation that betrayed their edginess, claimed two more victims: Neil McKenzie and then Jacques Kallis, the latter clearly furious, both went to balls they had failed to pick up. When Ashwell Prince fell to James Anderson, they were 93 for 4.
Smith watched all this from the other end and it was at this point that he knew it was not just his batting but his resolve that was on trial. He had accused his team-mates of losing their discipline in the field on Friday; it was clear now that if South Africa were to succeed he would have to keep his. He had some luck. During one torrid patch, he survived an appeal for leg before shouldering arms, narrowly escaped a run-out and then got the benefit of umpire Aleem Dar's doubts when replays suggested he had been caught off the glove.
But by 7.15pm, having backed himself and Mark Boucher to finish the job, he earned his reward, pulling a four through midwicket off Kevin Pietersen to secure victory, clinch the series and take his own score to 154 not out, as South Africa completed a record fourth-innings run chase for an Edgbaston Test.
"I have had some meaningful innings in my life, including the double hundreds here on the last tour," Smith said. "But when you sum the whole situation up I would have to say that it's my best. Since readmission we have targeted wins in Australia, India and England. We have ticked off one of them and that is something we really wanted to do."
Scoreboard from Edgbaston
Third npower Test
England won toss
England – First Innings 231 (A N Cook 76, I R Bell 50)
South Africa – First Innings 314 (N D McKenzie 72, J H Kallis 64; A Flintoff 4-89)
England – Second Innings
P D Collingwood c Boucher b Morkel......... 135
298 min, 195 balls, 19 fours, 1 six
†T R Ambrose b Morkel ......... 19
101 min, 80 balls, 2 fours
R J Sidebottom c Amla b Morkel......... 22
78 min, 48 balls, 5 fours
J M Anderson b Kallis......... 1
6 min, 7 balls
M S Panesar not out......... 0
2 min, 0 balls
Extras (b8, lb2, w6, nb3)......... 19
Total (435 min, 98.2 overs)......... 363
Fall: 7-297 (Ambrose), 8-362 (Sidebottom), 9-363 (Anderson), 10-363 (Collingwood).
Bowling: Morkel 19.2-1-97-4, Nel 20-3-79-1, Ntini 18-4-58-2, Kallis 20-5-59-1, Harris 21-3-60-2.
South Africa – Second Innings
*G C Smith not out ......... 154246 balls, 17 fours
N D McKenzie lbw b Flintoff ......... 22
56 balls, 3 fours
H M Amla lbw b Panesar ......... 6
J H Kallis lbw b Flintoff ......... 5
7 balls, 1 four
A G Prince c Ambrose b Anderson ......... 2
A B de Villiers c Collingwood b Panesar ......... 27
57 balls, 3 fours
†M V Boucher not out ......... 45
85 balls, 5 fours
Extras (b 9, lb 9, w2, nb 2) ......... 22
Total (for 5; 80 overs) ......... 283
Did not bat: M Morkel, P L Harris, A Nel, M Ntini.
Bowling: Sidebottom 10-1-26-0, Anderson 13-0-60-1, Panesar 33-3-91-2, Flintoff 20-5-72-2, Pietersen 4-0-16-0.
Fall: 1-65 (McKenzie), 2-78 (Amla), 3-83 (Kallis), 4-93 (Prince), 5-171 (De Villiers).
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and S J Davis (Aus).
TV replay: I J Gould.
Match referee: R S Madugalle.
South Africa win by 5 wickets.
South Africa lead four-match series 2-0.Reuse content