Graeme Smith’s Edgbaston epic ended a decades-long drought in England and the tenure of opposing captain Michael Vaughan. It sits at No.4 in Wisden’s Test innings of the 2000s.
Graeme Smith 154* (246 balls)
England v South Africa, 3rd Test
July 30-August 2, 2008
Coming into series against England, South Africa had just started to demonstrate the kind of team they would become under captain Graeme Smith. Their remarkable run of almost 10 years without an away series defeat had just begun, but while wins in Pakistan and West Indies were impressive, they were still searching for a true statement result to show they meant business. A tour to England, where South Africa had not won since 1965, presented a perfect opportunity.
By now Smith had already developed a liking for ending the careers of England captains. Nasser Hussain had foolishly poked the bear, calling the then-fresh-faced skipper ‘Whatshisname’ before a 2003 series. After racking up 621 runs in his first three innings of that series, Smith made sure Hussain wouldn’t forget his name again in a hurry, and by the second Test of the series, Michael Vaughan was in charge.
Vaughan was still at the helm for Smith’s return visit, and the South African smelled blood. He too wouldn’t last until the end of the series, and once again it was Smith who dealt the decisive blow. But while the knocks that derailed Nasser were monuments to attrition, feats of concentration and bloody-mindedness on wickets that suited such virtues, his Edbgaston epic was something else entirely.
By the fourth innings of the game, the pitch was beginning to rag, and Monty Panesar was finding the rough with regularity. Andrew Flintoff, having bowled that over to Jacques Kallis in the first innings, was making the most of a low sightscreen – Mickey Arthur was furious in the dugout at the apparent underhandedness – pinning Neil McKenzie and Kallis again in front of all three with no shots offered, and when James Anderson nicked off Ashwell Prince, South Africa were four down, the 100 not yet brought up, and still nearly 200 runs shy of their target.
All the while, barring one lbw appeal from Panesar which HawkEye showed should have been given, Smith was immoveable. What’s most striking upon rewatching the innings are his drives. Smith, you imagine, might have taken a certain twisted pleasure from the anti-aesthetic of his batting style, grinding you down visually as well as on the scoreboard, and while a seldom seen creature, his drive is almost harder to watch than his signature leg-side play, a bastardisation of a once-beautiful ornament.
But the frequency with which he smote England’s bowlers down the ground and through the off-side also demonstrated his supreme form, and his unwillingness to be tied down even as havoc was wrought at the other end. This was the image Smith was just beginning to carve South Africa into. He and his side rarely dominated teams from ball one; their touring mastery was based on survival, on resilience, on not losing for as long as possible, until the opening came and the heist was sprung.
England had spent three and a bit days clawing out an advantage, only for Smith to win the game in two sessions. Vaughan was in tears, the captaincy was Pietersen’s, and Biff was just getting started.