Double burden on Biff
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Graeme Smith’s largely undisputed nerves of steel are about to face up to another big obstacle as South Africa contemplate Saturday’s Cricket World Cup Group B crunch with India at Nagpur.
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The Proteas captain goes into the encounter wrestling a couple of issues involving his own one-day international game.
His form has been patchy in the arena of late, including the first three South African matches at the World Cup, where he has “got in” each time – albeit never with any compelling fluency – for scores of 45 (West Indies), 20 (Netherlands) and 22 (England) and then been dismissed.
For someone who so obviously gets his batting kicks through “dominating”, there must be a creeping sense of frustration – it has been some 25 innings, for instance, since he last scored an ODI century although that is not always the be all and end all in limited-overs cricket.
That knock was back in September 2009, when he registered a fighting, career-best 141 in the Champions Trophy against England at Centurion – albeit in a losing cause after an unusually high-scoring tussle.
Also not helping his own planetary alignment, as it were, is that he will almost certainly be running slap bang at Nagpur into the bowler who can truly be said to have his number at present – the wily Indian left-arm seamer Zaheer Khan.
Khan has a near-zealous, wide-eyed stare at the best of times but his eyes must light up even more these days when he spots “Biff” taking guard (OK, sometimes it is Hashim Amla first-up and perhaps that’s not the worst thing) while contemplating the first delivery for India.
He did, after all, extend his run of mastery over Smith in South Africa earlier this season, when he snared him in each of the Durban and Cape Town Tests – Zaheer did not play the opener at Centurion through injury – and also got his man in the final ODI.
Something in the ever-dogged Proteas skipper’s favour, however, is that he has had surprisingly few personal opportunities at ODI level against India in their own territory – only four of his 168 overall matches, and all in a 2005 series which South Africa did pretty well to share 2-2.
Not only that, but Smith fared well enough then to share player of the series with Yuvraj Singh, his efforts including a blistering innings of 134 not out at Eden Gardens which earned the Proteas a rare away slaughter of these opponents by 10 wickets.
Partner Andrew Hall (a rather more sedate 48 not out) was a willing passenger as Smith made spectacularly short shrift of an undemanding chase of 189 to win.
The Wisden Almanack report on the game notes that of his 20 fours (and a six), “many scorched past cover and point”, a sure sign that Smith’s sometimes cumbersome feet -- which can see him “fall over” and demonstrate an unhealthy level of bias for his favourite leg side – were moving well.
Is there a case for contemplating the possibility of Smith moving down the order to try to thwart Khan’s early ambition – no doubt -- against him on Saturday?
Perhaps, especially in this climate of far greater flexibility by the Proteas, and given that the big customer is capable of seeking out the boundary and generally keeping the scoreboard moving at most stages of an ODI innings.
But then again, the South African captain is big on the “lead from the front” principle and would probably hate to send out any sort of message that he is somehow ducking out of a skirmish.
I suspect that despite his relative misery at times against Zaheer, he will only want to wrestle the left-arm swingster beast in the belief that he can emphatically lay demons to rest.
He has done so before, whatever his never-ending knockers may say ...