Johannesburg – Graeme Smith faces a busy week as he balances commemorations of his 100th Test as captain with preparations for an intriguing opening Test with Pakistan starting at the Wanderers on Friday.
Smith also celebrates his 32nd birthday on the first day of the match, which will add to the pomp and ceremony of the week. The national team’s kit sponsor adidas (also Smith’s personal sponsor) will have a massive replica shirt in their Sandton store from Tuesday for people to sign, while South African Breweries will provide one of their suites at the Wanderers for Smith’s family and close friends to use on the first day of the Test.
There’ll be a birthday cake from Sunfoil, a couple of radio appearances, some other sponsors functions and apparently a rendition of “Happy Birthday” during the tea-interval on the first day.
In between, Smith will have to find time to prepare for a side he acknowledged recently were an “unknown factor”.
There’ll be plenty of intelligence provided by Vincent Barnes who is coaching the SA Invitational XI, which wraps up a tour match against the Pakistanis in East London on Monday.
However, much of the video evidence of players like Nashir Jamshed, Junaid Khan and Mohammed Irfan will be sourced from the recently completed one-day series in India, which Pakistan somewhat surprisingly won 2-1.
While the week will certainly be busier than usual, the South African captain has grown accustomed recently to balancing acknowledgments of personal landmarks alongside the demands of preparing the side (and himself) for a significant challenge.
Last July he played his 100th Test at The Oval, and scored a century as part of a massive victory over England. Two matches later he captained for the 94th time in a Test – a new record – at Lord’s where South Africa grabbed the victory in a thrilling game, which saw them become the No1 Test side in the world. Besides the cricketing landmarks in those matches there were loads of distractions off the field – immediately after the first Test, Smith flew back to South Africa for the birth of his daughter and ahead of the Lord’s Test there was the mess over Kevin Pietersen.
Finding some order amid all the distractions this week, and thus time to properly prepare for a side he knows little about will be of the utmost importance for Smith. Pakistan are something of a mystery and despite the stability they’ve brought to their play in recent times under the leadership of Misbah ul-Haq, they retain an unpredictable element.
Since Misbah took over the captaincy reins in 2010 following the scandal-ridden tour of England, Pakistan have won six out of eight Test series, losing just one, all while plying their trade outside their own country.
Unlike the other sides from the sub-continent they can actually utilise bouncy South African conditions to their favour with the likes of Khan and the 2.15m Irfan likely to enjoy bowling here.
Still, history suggests Pakistan will struggle. They’ve only beaten South Africa three times in 18 Tests – two of those coming in the nine matches the sides have played in this country.
Notwithstanding the distractions that will be around this week, South Africa have an experienced and classy Test side. The batting personnel, which will face its toughest task for many a year, is rugged and loves scoring “big” runs. Hashim Amla should be over the quad injury which saw him left out of the final two One-Day Internationals against New Zealand.
It’s South Africa’s attack that sets them apart from the other Test-playing nations at present. Dale Steyn, Morné Morkel and Vernon Philander cause opposing batsmen no end of grief and they’re the major reason South Africa are unbeaten in their last 12 Tests. Though they can ill-afford to take Pakistan for granted, it is a series South Africa should win – perhaps with a white-wash.
“We are confident that Robbie will be fit to play but it is prudent to have a cover player available to take a full part in the team’s preparation this week,” said national selection convener Andrew Hudson. Tahir, born in Lahore, last played for South Africa in Australia with disastrous results.
The South African squad will gather in Johannesburg tomorrow to begin their preparations for the Test.