JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JANUARY 22, Graeme Smith of South Africa celebrates his 100 runs during the 5th ODI match between South Africa and Sri Lanka from Bidvest Wanderers Stadium on January 22, 2012 in Johannesburg, South Africa Photo by Duif du Toit / Gallo Images

When the South African team left for New Zealand last week, Graeme Smith wasn’t with them. Smith’s absence at the head table as AB de Villiers addressed the press conference about the tour, looked most unusual, given what a presence Smith, as South Africa’s captain, has become in the nine years he has led the team.

Instead, he leaves for New Zealand on Saturday, with little of the fanfare that accompanied De Villiers when the side departed a week ago. Smith admitted on Thursday that not being captain anymore – of the one-day side – was something he only gradually grew accustomed to. “I always batted with a captaincy mindset, and this season, that transition has been tough, to find that competitive edge is something I initially struggled with,” Smith said.

Those struggles are reflected in his performances with the bat in the five-match series against Sri Lanka. He didn’t top 30 in the first three matches, but in the fourth ODI he notched up a bullish 68, which he followed up with a century at the Wanderers, his first in two-and-a-half-years in the 50-over format.

“But hey, not doing all the media conferences, the selection meetings – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed not doing that,” he quipped

So it’s not all bad then.

Smith’s spent a lot of time these past few years thinking about the captaincy. He stepped down as one-day and T20 captain after the World Cup and was persuaded by Gary Kirsten to remain as Test captain shortly after the latter took over as coach.

“It’s not something I am clinging on to,” he said of the captaincy. “I want to do it for as long as I am benefiting the team.

“There are big tours coming up this year and I want to play a big role in those, but being captain is not something I expect to be doing for the next two or three years. Maybe next year I might be looking at stepping down (as Test captain).”

Smith emphasised that he wasn’t targeting a specific date for handing over the captaincy, but felt the team and whoever took over as skipper – most likely De Villiers – needed to be settled when he made that decision.

“Hopefully, by that stage, AB will be established (as one-day captain) but it is still a massive challenge to be captain in all three formats, probably tougher now than ever.

“Overall, I am very relaxed about (not being captain), I am happy to be there as a senior player.”

By the same token, he sees being in a supportive role for De Villiers, who started his second series as captain this morning against New Zealand, as vital.

“Hopefully AB will grow into it and I am very keen to help him not make the same mistakes I did. I’m there to support him, and I want to see myself as an asset to him.”

Although South Africa is expected to win the Test series, Smith said beating New Zealand in their own backyard won’t be easy. In 2004 South Africa had to come from behind to draw the Test series having already lost the one-dayers.

“It’s probably changed a fair bit since I was last there, but the one thing I do remember is the weather. The last time we were there, was in the days before ‘SKINS’ (compression clothing) and under garments and I remember us putting on track-suits underneath our kit when we played. The facilities were also not that great, but I believe they’ve improved now.”

Where Smith was the young skipper on the block in 2004 – and copped a calculated, verbal barrage from Stephen Fleming in an infamous incident during the one-day series on that tour – this time it’s New Zealand who will be led by a young skipper in Ross Taylor.

“I haven’t seen that much of him as captain, but I know he is an exciting player, especially in the shorter forms. I don’t know him too well, but the guys who have talked to him say he is a hell of a nice guy. We do get on really well with the New Zealanders off the field, probably better with them than any other team. But it is tough on the field, they’re street smart and they’re not afraid to put a bit of mouth in when they’re out there.

“The start will be key for us. It’s crucial we get going well in the T20s so that we can really get into the tour.”

Like many others, Smith is aware of the significance of a white-wash in the Test series in the Land of the Long White Cloud, but he does not want it to distract the side.

“I just want us to win that first Test. That sets the platform, that will be the toughest Test.

“Pakistan have given us the opportunity to be No1. With Tours to New Zealand, England and Australia, this year reminds me a lot of 2008 and if we can get together and play as well as we did then, there can be no speculation about who is the best Test team.”

That England tour, which will take place in July, has already garnered plenty of attention, with many looking forward to a series that in all likelihood will feature the two best Test sides of the last few years.

“Look, it’s there at the back of the guys minds, but there is so much cricket before then; we have five weeks in New Zealand and then a lot of the guys have the IPL, England is still a long way away. But there is no doubt it is one of the most exciting tours to go on, I really enjoy tours there – you get on a big bus and you go around the country – it’s fantastic.

“We’ve also had some good success there, winning in 2008 and drawing that series in 2003. It’s just a great cricket tour, and everyone will be egging to be on that tour.”

Smith hasn’t spent the three weeks with his feet up, besides putting in some work in the nets with Jimmy Cook, there have been bike rides through Tokai forest with Dale Steyn and the national side’s fitness trainer Rob Walter – also there are preparations to be done as Smith is to become a father later this year. “I’m still floating,” he admitted about the news that he revealed a fortnight ago.

As for the training, Smith said: “I didn’t have a lot of time to work on fitness after the knee surgery (last July), so it’s been good because I’ve been doing a lot of grafting with Rob Walter.

“From my perspective confidence has always been key. There’ve been scores this season, I’ve gotten hundreds and fifties, I’ve hit the ball well, but I haven’t done so consistently.

“I’ve been doing a lot of work with Jimmy (in Cape Town), just grooving shots.” – The Star