Smith the conqueror
Sport24 columnist Colin Bryden (File)
Graeme Smith stands on the brink of a momentous achievement as he prepares for the third and final Test against England at Lord’s on Thursday.
He will be captaining South Africa for the 93rd time, which equals the world record for most captaincies of one team, set by Allan Border of Australia. If you throw in his captaincy of the ill-fated ICC World XI he will move to the top of the pile on his own.
Lord’s holds fond memories for Smith – he hit an electrifying 259 which set up victory in 2003 and a fighting hundred in a rearguard action in 2008 which saved the Test and set up a series win – and this Test could provide another memorable highlight.
South Africa need only a draw to complete their second successive Test series win in England and go to the top of the world Test rankings. It will be yet another significant triumph for Smith, who has led South Africa to 43 Test wins and series victories against all the major countries.
Lord’s will be a true measure of where this South African team stand. Too often in the past they have stopped just short of greatness, not quite finishing the job, but they have shown impressive resolve so far in England. Having observed them at close quarters in recent weeks, a mature attitude has shown through. It was invigorating to hear Smith speaking about the challenge not only of reaching number one but of perhaps being the team to break away and create a gap from what has become something of a logjam at the top.
England’s chances of winning, which they need to do to hold on to their number one position, has been weakened considerably by the absence of Kevin Pietersen, their only batsman with the ability to play the sort of innings that can turn a Test match in a matter of hours. They have men capable of playing long innings but the inexperience of James Taylor and Jonny Bairstow at five and six is a weakness, although Taylor showed plenty of application at Leeds while Bairstow made a century for England Lions against Australia A last weekend. Bairstow reportedly had trouble against the short ball against the West Indies earlier this season which is hardly likely to give him confidence.
A sad feature of this all-too-short series is that the pitches have been too slow to add spice to what was expected to be a battle between two outstanding fast bowling attacks. According to English journalists, Lord’s has been easy-paced this season so it looks like more hard work ahead for the bowlers in the decider, with hot weather predicted for the weekend.
South Africa’s bowlers have done better in tough conditions but the Proteas batsmen cannot afford to relax the vigilance which has so frustrated the England attack. Despite their lack of success so far in the series, the England bowlers should not be under-estimated. A first priority for the South Africans must be to ensure the sort of first innings total which leaves room for only one winner.
Especially if Smith is one of the main contributors to a healthy scorecard, he will deserve all the accolades that will come his way. For any man to captain any team for nine years, as Smith has done, takes enormous character. He has shown physical courage, too, with a determination to overcome injuries which would sideline lesser men. Tactically he might not be in the Mike Brearley category but he has led by example and his record is outstanding.
If Lord’s goes according to plan, Smith’s place in the legacy of the great ground, already assured, will be considerably enhanced.Colin Bryden will be covering the England-South Africa series. He has reported on all four of South Africa’s previous tours of England since 1994.
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