CAPE TOWN – Captains come and captains go. But Graeme Smith left an indelible mark on South African cricket. Even more so when the opposition was Australia.
“Biff” may have been the slayer of two England captains during his time, but it was his fierce battles with the men wearing the Baggy Green that defined his career.
From the moment a skinny 21-year-old was given a foul “welcome” on Test debut at Newlands, through to walking out to bat with a broken hand at the SCG before eventually bidding farewell almost prematurely 12 years later at the same place where it all began, Smith never gave the Aussies one inch.
Two successive series victories, which included the celebrated maiden triumph in 2008, in the arch-enemy’s home den is testimony to this.
It is this attitude that Smith wants Faf du Plessis’ team to adopt if the class of 2018 are to achieve something that not even he – or any other post-isolation South African cricketer for that matter – achieved: Beat Australia in a home series!
“I think Australia are in a good space. They have had success here. But when playing Australia, it’s about not allowing them to get ascendancy early on, especially in that first two Test matches.
“You need to hold Australia, find a way to take the game deep, then you start to create doubt in the Australian line-up,” the former Proteas skipper told Independent Media.
“What they want to do is play cricket on the front foot, they want to almost bully you in their style of play. That sort of bully approach, take you on and knock you over type of mentality.
“If South Africa can be smart, hold the game, compete in the game, especially in that first Test for couple of days, be right in the mix, then you are making Australia think and make them adapt from their normal style.”
The “bullying” has already showed its teeth even before the first ball has been bowled in anger on Thursday in Durban.
Teenage Highveld Lions all-rounder Wiaan Mulder, who was recently added to the Proteas Test squad, received a “proper” working-over from Mitchell Starc and Co in last week’s warm-up match in Benoni.
More importantly, though, for the Proteas is that the visitors from Down Under can back up their snarls with substance.
They have been in ripping form lately. They vanquished the Poms 4-0 at home with a fearsome pace attack that had Joe Root’s England team yearning for the comforts of Yorkshire in mid-winter.
Unlike the Proteas, who struggled without a host of senior players during the white-ball leg of the India tour, losing both the ODI and T20 series in the process, David Warner also led a group of Big Bash youngsters unbeaten to the trans-Tasman T20 title just last week.
And if the Proteas bowlers thought they had suffered enough at the blade of a visiting skipper already this season after Virat Kohli transformed South Africa’s stadiums into his personal playground, it will come as no consolation that the splendid Steve Smith is listed higher than even the prolific Kohli on the official ICC Test batsman rankings at No 1.
Smith acknowledges the threat that his namesake Steve Smith and his deputy Warner pose, but believes there are cracks in the Aussie dam wall that South Africa should look to exploit, with left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj being central to the plan.
“I think Australia have struggled against a moving ball and against a spinning ball. That’s why they generally haven’t toured as well. At home the wickets play true and good – yes, they are fast and bouncy, but you can you can hit through the line,” he said.
“I think Maharaj will play a key role in the series. If South Africa can get the ball to move in the air, that will be hugely beneficial to them. You can ask a lot questions of the Australian players’ techniques. South Africa are more used to playing the moving ball.”
Australia’s record away from the island certainly suggests they will not have everything their own way here in the Republic, though.
Steve Smith acknowledged this at his arrival press conference: “For us as a team, winning away is a big goal. Like most teams around the world, we don’t play well away... well, every team around the world hasn’t played well away from home for a while.”
The uncertainty within the captain’s comments comes from his team having played 14, won six and lost six series on the road since 2010. Plenty of that confusion has been down to not getting the balance of the team right on tour.
In recent times, South Africa have also toyed with the make-up of their team. Under new coach Ottis Gibson, there has been an emphasis on fast bowling, with the Proteas opting for the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” approach.
In the final Test against India at the Wanderers, it went even one step further, with Maharaj being left out for a five-man pace attack.
Smith, though, prefers the tactic that took the Proteas to the pinnacle of Test cricket under his helm.
“I would like to see South Africa go with three seamers and a spinner, get runs on the board and post big totals. The 7-3 option is what I will start the series with, but South Africa seem to have taken the option of going with the extra seamer.
“For me, it is about the batting unit of both sides. There are obviously outstanding bowlers. I think whichever batting unit can produce totals (will give their team the edge).
“If South Africa can get the ball to swing, it will create pressure on their top-order.
“That’s when South Africa will have a good chance. For me, it is about both batting line-ups. Whoever can bat better will define the series.”