South Africa overcome demons to enjoy spoils

Smith's heroics soothe nerves as tourists shake off 'chokers' tag
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The Independent Online

It is cruel to say so, but South Africa have been the best Test team in the world at the fatal art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They have got form.

The reason they had not won a Test series in England since the end of apartheid is because they have shown an uncontrollable tendency to choke. But the disease is not chronic after all. Despite the detection of some symptoms on Friday, the choking tendency has been overcome.

Guided by a memorable captain's innings of 154 not out by Graeme Smith – bravely assistedin influential partnerships with AB de Villiers (78) and Mark Boucher (112) – South Africa lost only five wickets in passing the 281 they needed to win the game and the series. Smith had some luck, but only a churl would qualify the praise he deserves.

"I'd have to say it's my best innings," said the scorer of two double hundreds in the 2003 series in England. He also revealed that he had taken painkillers yesterday to calm the pain in his back.

But it was well into the evening before it seemed clear the urge to choke had been dismissed. Mickey Arthur, South Africa's good-natured coach, confessed he had suspected it might be happening on Friday afternoon, when Smith's tourists appeared to have established a winning position. "We concentrated too much on the outcome and forgot about the process," he said.

There was still strong evidence yesterday of the tendencyto panic. Neil McKenzie and Jacques Kallis behaved as though they had been persecuted by Andrew Flintoff. Maybe they were finding it difficult to see the ball out of the hand when Flintoff was bowling at the Pavilion End, but this could also be read as evidence that the team were about to suffer from the mental disintegration virus that has hobbled their ambition to be the best in the world.

But Smith was immune. While the top order were losing their heads, he used his to lead from the front. He is not a memorable strokeplayer, but he is a manof considerable character, and he let his innings build through quickly snatched singles and enough boundaries – a total of 11 in his hundred – to keep the scoreboard moving.

Hashim Amla and Ashwell Prince each succumbed in single figures. The lbw decision against Amla looked marginal, but when James Anderson had Prince caught behind he raced towards fine leg before collapsing to the ground and being smothered by his team-mates, as if he had scored a goal.

De Villiers refused to join the retreat, and his partnership of 78 with Smith held out a hope that South Africa would be the first Test team to score more than 208 to win in the lastinnings of an Edgbaston Test. This was despite the fact that their killer instinct might have been hibernating when they allowed England to increase their lead yesterday morning. The 66 runs they added made their own second innings total realisticallycompetitive.

The idea South Africa might choke was credible because it happened in each of the past three Test series played in England. In 2003 they went to the last Test at The Oval one up but succumbed to the skilful persist-ence of Marcus Trescothick, and Flintoff's bludgeon. England drew level, as they had done in 1994, when Devon Malcolmtook 9 for 57 in South Africa's second innings.

In 1998 they appeared to suffer from a tactical by-pass at Old Trafford when they failed to take advantage of a winning position, and England were saved by my colleague Angus Fraser, whose obduracy saved the day. England won the series.

Last night at Edgbaston the best team won, and they take the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy. They did make a meal of it, but Smith was jubilant: "It's bigger than just us," he said.