He's made two England skippers disappear, now Smith wants to cast a spell on Strauss
21:30 GMT, 15 July 2012
Neither Nasser Hussain nor Michael Vaughan went into their respective home series against South Africa, in 2003 and 2008, intending to step down as England captain, yet neither made it to the final match still in charge. Both were on the receiving end of monumental innings from their opposite number, Graeme Smith. And both resigned.
Popular myth has it that Hussain contributed to his own torment in the first Test at Edgbaston when he referred to Smith — then aged 22 and in only his second series as captain — as 'Wotsisname' in the pre-match press conference.
Some say Smith wasn’t even aware of the slight, and that it had nothing to do with his subsequent innings of 277 — then a South African record — or the 259 he made in the next Test at Lord's.
Crouching tiger: Graeme Smith is in confident mood ahead of South Africa's series with England
‘I was told about it,’ a laughing Smith says nine years later in the current edition of Wisden Extra. ‘I was well aware of it. I’d like to think I would have scored those runs anyway, but there was certainly a feeling of wanting to make sure he remembered my name next time.’
Hussain may have been nearing the end of the road anyway — Smith just happened to be the right man in the right place at the right time to persuade him to hand over to Michael Vaughan.
But five years later there was very clearly a sense of hunter and hunted about the Smith–Vaughan relationship, with Smith admitting at the time that South Africa ‘dived in as hard as we could’ once it became obvious his opposite number was under pressure.
These days he is a great deal more mellow. There is no such fighting talk. He respects Andrew Strauss and, although he doesn’t ‘know him personally at all,’ he places him on the same level — both as a player and a captain — as Vaughan.
‘He’s obviously a very strong personality with that quiet determination that sees him getting things done and achieving things with the minimum of fuss. He seems to keep an iron fist in a velvet glove,’ says Smith.
‘He’s also media savvy. He knows when to make a little comment or quip to feed the press something tasty and maybe deflect their attention from matters closer to home. He’s smart.’
Controversy: The last time the teams played, Andrew Strauss refused the cramp-affected Smith a runner
The ICC Champions Trophy clash at Centurion three years ago, when Strauss effectively ended South Africa’s chances of progressing beyond the group stage by denying Smith a runner towards the end of an epic innings is now well and truly gone — at least from Smith’s point of view.
‘I had cramp and Andrew was perfectly entitled to say “no”. I was disappointed afterwards but more because I got cramp than about his decision. I would probably have done exactly the same thing.’
It sounds as though Smith doesn’t rate his chances of continuing the ‘England captain slayer’ reputation. He laughs.
Choice: Kevin Pietersen is considering a retirement u-turn
‘I could sense the pressure building on Strauss before the West Indies tour and I couldn’t help putting two and two together. What if they had a bad series against the Windies and he didn’t score many runs And then we arrive… I could see how it might have happened. But I’m pretty sure those two hundreds have made him safe now.’
The other piece of England news to have interested the South African captain recently was Kevin Pietersen’s retirement from one-day — and, as a contractual side-effect, Twenty20 — cricket.
Smith admits he found the transition, after last year’s World Cup, from one-day captain to senior player under the leadership of AB de Villiers ‘incredibly difficult’.
And despite recent speculation about Pietersen’s possible return to limited-overs cricket, Smith says he would be ‘amazed’ if the England man doesn’t find it considerably harder not playing at all.
‘It’s impossible to know what you’re giving up, and how hard it will hit you, until it’s gone,’ he says. ‘One-day cricket has been a big part of his life for a very long time and, right now, he thinks he can just walk away from it. Maybe he can. But I think he’ll quickly find there’s a big hole in his life which isn’t as easy to cope with as he may think.
‘I don’t have any inside information at all, so I’m just looking from the outside. But if there’s any truth that his decision was partly based on the disagreements he had with the ECB and the way they treated him, then I believe he’ll find it even harder to come to terms with the way his one-day career has ended. He just seemed to be back to his aggressive, attacking best, too. Very strange that he should give it away.’
So does Smith see a KP comeback The smile is non-committal.
‘He’s just turned 32, only a bit older than me. And I’ve had far more physical problems than him. But I reckon my best ODI form is ahead of me, not behind me. I’m very keen to play limited-overs cricket and I’m still very ambitious.’
The World Cup in India was the low point of Smith’s career and he speaks with unusual — perhaps even alarming — candour for a man who possesses a stiffer upper lip than many Englishmen.
Not only did South Africa crash out with typical ignominy in the quarter-finals, but Smith failed to score a single fifty, and was vilified by critics for choosing to visit fiancee Morgan Deane in Ireland rather than return home with his team-mates.
‘It hit me hard and I was a bit lost for a while afterwards,’ he admits. ‘My confidence was affected and I needed a lot of time to reflect on the game and its place in my life — and my place in it.
Lording it: Smith has said Lord's is his favourite ground to play at, and no wonder considering his record there
'But the best way to get over a disappointment is to put it right, if you’re lucky enough to have that opportunity. And I did.’
He is as excited about this tour as any — and it’s not just because the No 1 Test ranking is up for grabs. It may sound a trifle absurd to wonder about an element of anti-climax four years after South Africa’s dramatic 2-1 series victory in 2008 and, in particular, Smith’s once-in-a-lifetime, match-winning 154 not out at Edgbaston.
But it meant so much to so many of the players that it seems only logical to wonder whether they might have a problem getting themselves up for it again.
Smith replies: 'Apart from the World Cup, we’ve achieved all the really big goals in the game. We’ve won Test series against pretty much everyone, home and away. But we haven’t done many of them twice.
‘They’re all hard to achieve — we won in England and then Australia within six months in 2008 — but it’ll be even harder to do twice. That’s the beauty of this challenge, and why we’re so excited by it.
'One of the greatest cricketers ever to represent South Africa has a special reason to make this trip one he will never forget.
‘Jacques Kallis had his one bad tour in 17 years the last time we were in England, so he wants to put that right. He’s usually an irresistible force when he puts his mind to something.’
This would also have applied to wicketkeeper Mark Boucher had he not suffered his freak eye injury on the opening day of the trip at Taunton.
Loss to the team: Mark Boucher's international career was ended by a freak injury early in the Tour
Smith was moved last week to describe his former right-hand man as ‘a true Proteas warrior, a patriotic South African, a fighter who asks nothing and gives everything’.
He was, said Smith, ‘a motivator, an inspirer, an energiser and a good friend to many’. The same can be said of the captain himself — and frequently is. England is his favourite tour and Lord’s his favourite ground.
‘It’s hard not to be moved by the atmosphere and sense of occasion,’ adds Smith. ‘And it’s hard not to love the place when you score two hundreds there. But I’m also really excited about playing at The Oval in the first Test.
‘I’ve always thought how we should suit the ground, with a bit of pace in the pitch and also some spin. But both times I’ve played there it’s been at the end of a long, hard tour and we’ve lost. That’s why it’s so exciting to start there this time. I hope we do as well as I think we can, and should.’
So where will the key battles be decided
‘I don’t want to single out names, but our bowling attack is hard to live with when it’s going well. I know England’s is, too, but I’ll back ours ahead of theirs. Same with the batting — both strong, but I’d back ours again.
‘Experience of conditions is the key. Four of our top six were on the last tour and three scored hundreds. Jacques Rudolph and Alviro Petersen have come into the side since then and both have hundreds of hours in English conditions.’
Done with: Smith has the honour of having been in the opposing captain in Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan's final Tests as captain
Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel were the first to admit they were overawed both by the flattery of the media four years ago and by the atmosphere at Lord’s, where they bowled poorly for two straight days in the first Test. They are much wiser operators now.
Vernon Philander cannot possibly live up to his pre-tour billing, can he Can Kallis, for that matter
‘People assume Jakes (Kallis) is tapering off on the bowling front but they couldn’t be more wrong,’ says Smith. ‘As a captain I still regard him as a crucial member of the attack. If it was up to him he would bowl more than he does, but I try to limit him to 10 or 12 overs a day.
'He can put a brake on the game or take a crucial wicket or three, as he did against England four years ago. His fitness and strength are incredible.’
England’s fast-bowling depth was thought to give them a significant advantage, although — even with 21-year-old quick Marchant de Lange now back home with a stress fracture — that overlooks the solid back-up provided by left-armer Lonwabo Tsotsobe.
But ECB’s decision to dumb down the series to three Tests may just have helped the tourists.
‘Nobody wanted that,’ says Smith, who is due to win his 100th cap at The Oval (Strauss hopes to reach the same landmark at Lord’s). ‘We’d all prefer a longer series given the status of the two teams, but it does mean, potentially, that depth is less of an issue.’
Surgery to his left ankle three months ago was the latest in what has seemed like an endless stream of potentially serious injuries over the last four years. But things are different now, Smith says with a sigh, or should that be a smile
‘I always came back from injuries too soon which led to other problems and more injuries. I didn’t want to miss important games so I didn’t have enough time to do the rehab properly.
'I don’t regret that, however. My performances didn’t suffer — just my body! But this time I’ll be ready, properly recovered and strong. I’m wary of tempting fate, but I haven’t felt this good, physically, for a long time — years.’
Who should supporters regard as favourites
‘England are more disciplined, smarter and better prepared than four years ago,’ says Smith, who may fly home after the first Test to attend the birth of his first child before returning for the second, starting at Headingley on August 2.
‘All the players who are still around from the last series have got better. They are a very, very good team at home and deserve to be ranked No 1. But we have also got better and we’re also pretty useful in English conditions.
'They have home advantage and they’re ranked ahead of us, but I’m not going to compete for underdog status! If some people want to make us favourites then I’ll take that as a compliment, not reject it.
‘Whatever happens, there’s a very good chance that people will see some high-quality, intensely competitive cricket — some cricket that people may remember for quite a while afterwards. We both want to win very much. It’s going to be quite a clash.’
This interview appears in the current issue of Wisden's online magazine, Wisden EXTRA. To subscribe free of charge, visit wisden.com