Will this SA team dominate like Smith’s?

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE in Nottingham

A leviathan loomed at Lord’s last week. Not that you could, in fairness, call Graeme Smith a sea monster. But he did loom and he was at Lord’s. And that does alliterate.

So does the thought of a titan towering over Trent Bridge. That’s what Smith is doing this week, thanks to his commentary gig on Test Match Special.

Smith’s jaw juts like a ship’s prow in an ocean of mere chins, his shoulders a yardarm that seem to span the cowering room. A big man in every way when he roamed the field with his fellow players, he is now Gulliver among Lilliputians.

That only means he dominates in England more, in some senses, than he did in 2003. And 2008. And again in 2012.

You can see it in the eyes of those who come to the sudden and terrible realisation: “Oh my God! He’s back.”

Scores of 277 and 259 in his first three test innings in this country, two more centuries five years later, another ton and a couple of half-centuries four years after that: perhaps Smith is a kind of sea monster, after all. At least, to the people of this island.

But the flash of fear soon fades as reality sets in: “He’s retired! Thank heavens!”

Still, it must have been cold comfort to them that Smith, on commentary, credited England as the place where he cemented his place in the game in only his third and fourth matches as South Africa’s captain.

“The big moment for me was the two double hundreds,” Smith said. “I had made some scores before that, but then the captaincy came and people wondered how I would handle it.

“The two double hundreds helped a great deal.”

To listen to Smith here is to hear a man who will not be argued with.

“I think South Africa made the right decision,” he said before lunch on the first day at Trent Bridge of Faf du Plessis opting to bat first in overtly seam and swing friendly conditions.

“They’ve fought well. If anything England have bowled short.”

No-one took issue with that, nor when Smith chortled at Ben Stokes demanding his captain refer a decision for not out after rapping Hashim Amla on the pads.

“I think Joe Root was bullied into that; that’s why I’m having a chuckle,” Smith said. Long before replays showed Amla had got the thinnest of edges to a ball that would have hit him outside the line, he added, “That’s hit him outside the line.”

Smith wasn’t done on the subject: “Joe Root is a young captain. He needs to at least talk to his ’keeper. I had that with Vernon Philander. He was always wanting to review.”

Ah, ‘Vern’ — a key member of the team that Smith took to the top of the test rankings here in August 2012.

Five years on, the only survivors of that squad are Amla, JP Duminy, Du Plessis, Morne Morkel and Philander.

Much has changed, even for that small group. Du Plessis, now South Africa’s captain, didn’t make his debut until the series in Australia that November and, on Friday, Duminy was dropped for the first time in 13 tests.

But Philander is still there. Then, he was disparaged early in the tour as a “club bowler”. He left with 15 wickets, five of them taken for 30 as South Africa clinched the series at Lord’s. Now he is the leader of the attack.

How did he gauge a team that doesn’t dominates as they did under Smith?

“There’s a different demeanour in the way the guys play now,” Philander said. “It’s a lot more positive than back in the day in the camp and in the brand of cricket we play.

“The generation before this would set up a game and then go for it, whereas now they’re going for it pretty much from the start and with bat and ball.”

Essentially, South Africa under Du Plessis take more risks than South Africa under Smith. Sometimes those gambles pay off, other times not.

That is as much an illustration of how test cricket has changed — and been influenced by shorter formats and concomitant brittle attention spans — as it is of how South Africa’s fortunes have changed along with their personnel.

Thanks to the team he had and his outsized leadership ability, Smith was able to buy his ticket and take his ride on the swings. Du Plessis is relegated to the roundabouts not by any lack of aptitude for the captaincy but by the hand of players he has been dealt.

But this South Africa team, Philander said, had a way to go before they could be considered the finished article.

“You are going to go through generations of cricketers, and each of them will come with their own brand of identity and the way that they want to play. This bunch is no different.

“It’s going to take time to get used to international cricket and what that’s all about, and we’ve got a lot of new faces.

“You’ve got to give them some time to get used to this level. I’m sure, once they’ve settled down, they’ll start performing to expectation.”

Fair enough. Except that those brittle attention spans do not brook such logic. Neither, too often, do the suits — especially when they have to explain to potential sponsors why they should pay their money and take their chances with a team who are good but not as good as those who came to England in 2012 and showed the poms what’s what.

That Smith’s team was the best South Africa has yet produced does not compute. If that lot could do it in 2012, what’s wrong with this lot?

Nothing. Or, at worst, not a lot. They are a fine side. Not as good as Smith’s, but precious few have been. And, you heard the man, they are not yet what they will be.

Smith, wearing his Protea badge on his sleeve in England’s commentary boxes this summer, can live with that. Can you?


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