Sri Lanka in SA

Was the rain Biff’s lifeline?

2012-01-18 07:56
Graeme Smith (Gallo)
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 that regard.

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 look.

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.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    sri lanka in sa  |  graeme smith  |  cape town
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