SA in New Zealand

Biff shows he still belongs

2012-03-09 10:22
Graeme Smith (Gallo)

Cape Town - With all the hype, much of it rightful thus far, about AB de Villiers’s confident ascension to the Proteas’ limited-overs captaincy, the ever-present anti-Graeme Smith lobby have only cranked up their accusation that the latter is now broadly surplus to international requirements.

Smith’s batting troubles in “instant” cricket for South Africa these days have been well documented and in many respects do give healthy ammunition to detractors.

But these people also very foolishly overlook the essential difference between one-day and Test cricket -- the latter a code that has always tickled the big left-hander’s fancy best and where his exploits have so often been etched onto honours boards worldwide.

And to summarily write him off as some sort of jaded has-been is just as crackpot ... “Biff” only turned 31 recently and his long-time friend and team-mate Jacques Kallis, who shared the limelight with him on Friday’s middle day of the first Test against New Zealand in Dunedin, is just one player proving that you can continue to flourish in your 37th year, for goodness sake.

Nor has there been any special statistical evidence to suggest that Smith is floundering in the five-day format, and his priceless innings of 115 on another sparkling day at University Oval, added to a first-knock 53, simply underlined his known relish for leading from the very frontline.

What we saw on Friday, over the course of a third-wicket, second-innings partnership of exactly 200 with unceasing master-dominator Kallis, was some 70 overs of sanity and street-smartness in a Test earlier characterised by the failure of batsmen from both sides to knuckle down properly once reasonably established.

As commentator and former Black Caps wicketkeeper Ian Smith put it: “This was old-fashioned, tough Test cricket.”

It could not have been a more timely statement of intent from the Proteas, either, as the first session of play in a hitherto ding-dong contest had not quite gone to the visitors’ likely plans.

First there was a bit of spirited last-wicket slogging from Trent Boult against the new ball, which added 30 confidence-inspiring runs to the Kiwi cause before Dale Steyn finally knocked over that lovable No 11 palooka Chris Martin at the other end.

It gave the hosts a bonus first-innings lead of 35 instead of what had looked like being a single-figure number, and then when South Africa lost Alviro Petersen and Hashim Amla in rapid succession they were in some degree of peril at two down with a flimsy 12-run lead.

If there is no substitute for pure experience in these situations, then Smith and Kallis, both batting with even-paced grit and application, went out of their way to be glowing examples of the theory, slowly but quite dramatically orchestrating a shift in dominance.

The session between lunch and tea may well turn out to be the definitive one in the game, as it was the first not to show a wicket and extracted some of the sting from the underdogs’ prior, admirable competitiveness.

Certainly the portents for the Proteas at least not to lose the Test now – 233 runs to the good with seven wickets in hand – seem excellent, when you consider the incredible stat that on the 23 previous occasions Smith has reached three figures for his country, South Africa have never lost (16 wins and seven draws, apparently).

Unless there is a dramatic fourth-day slump – Kallis is still there on 107, don’t forget – the tourists will be presenting New Zealand with a final-dig target far in excess of 300 on a pitch likely to become more and more “up and down” even if deterioration does not look that pronounced yet to the naked eye.

There is also still the prospect of some niggly, lingering rain on the final day’s play on Sunday, so at the very least it looks increasingly unlikely that South Africa can lose.

The best tribute that could be made to Kallis for his efforts here came when one of the commentators described him as “so focussed he actually looks bored”, which is a hallmark many other toiling teams in the field across the planet can vouch for when he is at the crease.

Getting to his 42nd ton also meant that the Wynberg BHS old boy went clear of Ricky Ponting into second place for most Test centuries of all time behind Sachin Tendulkar, who remains fairly comfortably ahead on 51.

Mind you, it’s Kallis who currently looks the likelier to add a significant tally more ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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