Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Graeme Smith’s 178-match
one-day international career may just have been given a precious puff of
extended oxygen by the weather gods in Bloemfontein.
The intervention of rain toward the increasingly
tense climax of the third ODI in the Free State metropolis on Tuesday, which
meant South Africa perhaps earned a slightly fortuitous victory by
Duckworth/Lewis method, also saw to it that the five-match series against Sri
Lanka has been clinched early by the Proteas.
Neutrals and no doubt a majority of Lankan
fans may well have suspected that the tourists might have edged the contest had
it gone the proper distance, although South Africa do deserve a swing in
meteorological fortunes considering their heritage of limited-overs hoodoos in
And it is also not out of the question
that, with captain and stroke-playing heavyweight AB de Villiers still very
much at the crease alongside the dangerous Albie Morkel, the host nation might
even have “doddled” the remaining chase.
I wonder, though, whether the biggest
single beneficiary of the outcome wasn’t perhaps opening batsman and former
skipper “Biff” Smith?
Just imagine if the Lankans had, in fact,
won the match and dramatically opened up the series once more: there would have
been a few nervous ripples in the Proteas’ dressing room ahead of the Kimberley
and Johannesburg fixtures, especially considering the prior release of Jacques
Kallis and Hashim Amla for the remainder of the series.
An area of mounting concern, it can hardly
be doubted, is Smith’s pallid form up front – he seems so out of touch and
technically befuddled at present that serious thought might well have had to be
given to putting him out of his misery for Friday’s next game.
Only now, with the series outcome settled,
there is immensely less pressure and the team strategists can safely revert to
their original plan, it seemed, to give him the entire series to try to
recapture his mojo.
I suspect Smith would have probably narrowly
survived the cull anyway for the day/nighter at the “Big Hole”, primarily
because of the surrender already of Amla and Kallis’s combined rich experience
and massive ability, but also because the 14-man South African squad at present
is weighted in favour of bowlers or bowling all-rounders: there is no
specialist batsman in the party outside of the present XI.
But some head-scratching would nevertheless
have been required over the big left-hander, who sports humble scores in
receding order of 2, 28 and 6 in the series and is in some danger of becoming
the ever-unorthodox Lasith Malinga’s short-term bunny.
Smith also laboured in the three-game ODI
series when Australia visited (and won 2-1) earlier in the summer, meaning he
averages 19 over the course of his last six matches on home soil.
It has been well documented of late, too,
that his last century in the format came as far back as September 2009, against
England at Centurion in the ICC Champions Trophy.
Giving up the captaincy to De Villiers has
thus not yet yielded the kind of restorative batting results desired of – and
no doubt by! – the veteran.
Even without another batsman of note in the
squad, certain options might have existed had the drastic decision been
considered necessary to drop Smith in the quest for greater stability at the
outset of the Proteas innings.
Someone like Robin Peterson, for instance,
who has had occasional stints as a pinch-hitting sort of customer either at No
3 or the very top of the order, could have had another crack, thus facilitating
the inclusion of a Wayne Parnell, Johan Botha or Vernon Philander in his more
traditional slot around No 8.
Admittedly that would have given the
Proteas more bowling options than they probably need, and a slightly unbalanced
People perhaps forget also that De Villiers
spent more than two years in the earliest phase of his ODI career as an opener
and could have been temporarily returned there, although it is a big ask of him
to lead, keep wicket and complete the Superman picture by taking guard right at
the start of the 50 overs.
There is already a swelling lobby of people
spitting “how many more chances must Smith have?”, but at least now the stakes
have been lowered just a tad – South Africa will still be mindful of the
rankings benefits of going for a 5-0 sweep – and Smith seems far likelier to
get a two-match last chance saloon.
Those who do still swear by his qualities
and proven credentials will comfort themselves in his ability to suddenly
produce the goods in times of adversity ... he needs to once more.
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing