JON CARDINELLI reflects on the day the Proteas beat England at Lord’s to win the 2012 Test series and claim the mace.
‘Are you sure you want to do this now?’ I asked Paddy Upton, as the contest between South Africa and England raced toward a thrilling climax.
The crowd roared as Matt Prior struck another boundary. I asked the Proteas performance director if he’d rather be up on the balcony sending messages to the players than sitting on the steps of the members’ pavillion chatting to a journalist. It’d just gone 4pm on the fifth day of the third and decisive Test of the series. My question was meant to be rhetorical.
Upton shook his head. The gesture said much for his confidence in the team and its ability to get the job done. Like head coach Gary Kirsten, the de facto mental coach was adamant that Graeme Smith and company were well placed to finish things off.
‘Don’t get me wrong, though,’ he said with a smile. ‘This is a seriously high-pressure situation.’
South Africa were far from clinical in that last hour of play. Prior survived thanks to a no-ball by Morne Morkel. Crucially, however, the Proteas did not panic. They stuck to their plan.
Where Morkel failed, Vernon Philander succeeded. Fittingly, the skipper pouched the catch that ended England’s hopes.
At the post-match press conference, Smith revealed that his hand was still throbbing from taking that catch. Significantly, there was also a hand-written message on the South African captain’s chest.
‘Miss You Bouch – 150’, it said in block capitals. Smith went on to explain that the message was a team tribute to Mark Boucher, who would have played in his 150th Test at Lord’s if not for sustaining a career-ending eye injury. The victory was dedicated to a man who played such an influential role in the formation of the team culture, a man who served as a iron example of how to respond when the chips are down.
The Proteas had won the fight to claim the biggest prize in cricket. I asked Upton if they had what it took to remain at the top of the rankings.
‘Getting to the top and staying at the top are two different processes,’ he said. ‘It’s more difficult staying at the top. I watched India get there, but then they were toppled very quickly. England were No 1, but it wasn’t hard to see that there were cracks in that outfit. ‘
Later, I caught up with Kirsten for an interview. What he said about the Proteas’ performances – which weren’t perfect across the series – summed up the new mindset of the team.
‘We played great cricket in that first Test against England, but it was always going to be hard to maintain that level of performance,’ the coach said. ‘We needed to show that we could still win even when we were not at our best. That’s where this team has moved on to the next level. We can still pull through even when we don’t dominate.’
The Proteas went on to claim another big Test-series victory when they visited Australia later that year. Smith, Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Dale Steyn, Morkel and Philander featured regularly in a golden period that also included series wins against New Zealand, Pakistan and India.
Kallis retired in late 2013 while Smith followed at the end of the 2013-14 season. The captain’s departure coincided with a series loss against Australia at home, the Proteas’ first since 2009.
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