For all his obduracy at the wicket and perceived bore away from the pitch, it’s my view that despite having captained his country with relative distinction and a modicum of success that Michael Atherton’s greatest gift to the game will be through his journalism.
An award-winning writer for the Times of London, it’s yesterday’s post-Test series victory match presentation, at which he extracted a vital piece of information out of both the vanquished Andrew Strauss and a beaming Proteas skipper Graeme Smith.
As a journalist, and fan, it provided me with not only a moment to celebrate as the Proteas ascended to the top of the world Test rankings but also threw forward to what now lies in store for them.
Strauss alluded to the challenge of being able to stay ahead of the chasing pack while sitting atop the rankings, which they’d done a year previously, while Smith in reply spoke of the need to grow the depth of his squad, in particular the bowling department. World cricket’s most lethal unit but susceptible should 2 injuries strike.
In England’s year as the world’s top-ranked team they won six of their 11 matches. While loss of form, team dynamics, the vagaries of playing in different conditions both home and away undeniably contribute, it’s a stark lesson to the Proteas to what sort of trap could befall them should they slack off at any point.
For those after the statistics, the highest wicket-taker in the completed three-match series was Dale Steyn with 15, with the Proteas attack occupying the top three spots on the bowlers’ charts. Vernon Philander, currently in possession of the best bowling strike rate in Test cricket history, was second on the list, with Morne Morkel third.
The England pace attack of Stuart Broad, Steven Finn and James Anderson ended up in positions three to six.
Hashim Amla and Matt Prior were awarded the respective Man of the Series awards for their teams with the Durbanite finishing way ahead as the leading run-scorer by over 200 runs. Prior just shading AB de Villiers in the wicketkeeping stakes with 11 dismissals to nine.
It was a series dominated by the Proteas, with almost everything going in their favour. Indeed nobody could predict the major trauma for the team to have suffered with the loss of Mark Boucher from their squad, but as has been well-documented now, the squad managed to draw on that experience and with his blessing galvanise toward a famous win.
Boucher had hoped to be at Lord’s to celebrate with the team but was unable to on medical advice. The tributes paid to him by Smith and his team afterwards was poignant, as only in time will the wider public fully appreciate his input into the Proteas and South African cricket as a whole.
For all its failings, as it tries to re-generate and reform in order to regain the trust of the South African sporting public, Cricket South Africa’s appointment of Gary Kirsten and their ability to provide him with whatever he’s required to take the team to this point needs to be commended.
And a final word on Graeme Smith, Test cricket’s most capped captain and a man who’s borne the full brunt of the range of emotions expressed by the South African sporting public. The humility with which he outwardly celebrated a truly momentous occasion is deserving of the highest of praise. It’s telling the way in which his team played out the series is testimony to a united dressing room. The contrast between the Proteas and England has been marked, both on and off the field.
Smith’s already hastened the retirements of two previous England captains although it would seem for now that Strauss might just avoid being the third.
Now to build on their success and learn from the failures of their rivals, as Australia now await.
Jean Smyth is an Eyewitness News Sports Reporter. Follow him on twitter @jeansmyth