Smith content with high expectations
Nine years as an international cricket captain has given Graeme Smith more than just records. It has handed him a wide-angle lens from which to view the game, something that comes in handy when the here and now is seen as the most important thing.
Smith remembers the struggles of the early 2000s when South Africa lost series across the sub-continent and the indifference that followed. He walked every step of the slow, steady rise to the top which may have appeared stagnating in second place but to Smith was a crucial process to building a strong side. He was part of the unit that eventually triumphed, a testament to years of grind.
With that in mind, the team's draw in Brisbane last week does not reflect a lack of ruthlessness or a fear of progression. For Smith, it illustrates exactly how far the team has come. "For us, the great thing is that there is a respect about our performance. If we had travelled a few years ago and drawn a Test match anywhere else in the world people would have been raving about it," Smith said. "The disappointment in the draw is good for us. It shows that people expect us to play well and that's exciting for us."
Being tagged as favourites is not new for South Africa but being tagged as favourites who may not fall at the final hurdle is. Every one-day competition they enter, South Africa are talked up with an undertone of being laughed at and when they crash out in any fashion, the knowing nods indicate that they were never really expected to win.
In Test cricket, it's different. Because South Africa have done so well, especially on the road, when they don't put on an emphatic performance, it is a surprise. Not to Smith. He refused to read too much into the rut the first Test got stuck in and did not think he should have done any more to dislodge it. "Both teams drew the last game, not just us," he said defiantly, when asked if he will do more to move the game forward in Adelaide.
Rather than employ more aggressive tactics, a sure-fire way to push a match along, South Africa will field a slightly different bowling attack, which Smith thinks will do the same job. After a brief dalliance with an all-pace line-up, which proved to be a mistake, the frontline spinner Imran Tahir is back in the starting XI and Smith expects him to make an impact, given the conditions.
"Hopefully there is a lot of rough, not for me but for the Aussie left-handers," he said. "Imran has used rough well in the time that he has played for us. He created a lot of stress for Andrew Strauss and the left-handers in England and his wrong'un is also a good option."
Smith can well recall the days of South Africa not having an attacking slower bowler and being accused of not being able to produce spinners. That may be why he has been one of Tahir's strongest supporters. Previously, he went as far as to say that having a wicket-taking spinner has given him most complete attack he has ever had to work with. He does not see Tahir has biding time, waiting for a career-defining explosion, and credits him with already making a difference.
"Naturally, he'll be anxious to do well, always," Smith said of Tahir. "That is his personality. But he has contributed in key ways for us over the last few Test matches and his role is important. He understands that not every surface that we have played on has offered him the world but he been able to contribute."
For that contribution, bringing in a more defensive bowler, such as left-armer Robin Peterson, did not even come into the team's thinking. "Imran is the frontline spinner and we backed him," Smith said.
The other weapon Smith has not always been used to having is the ultra-reliability of Vernon Philander, which has wavered on this tour. Rather than be concerned, Smith said he has no doubts that Philander will lift in Adelaide. "We didn't have any green tracks in England and he did pretty well. I've liked the way he looked this week, really good zip in the nets. The ball has been swinging and moving and I expect good things from him," he said. "He has got the character to bounce back. I don't think he bowled really badly in Brisbane."
South Africa's bowling attack hold one of the keys to them retaining the No.1 ranking for a sustained period. But in Brisbane they looked flat. Although they only managed five wickets, compared to Australia's 14, Smith said both sides had bowlers who "lacked a bit."
One thing South Africa cannot afford is deficiencies in any department. Their defence of the title could not have begun any tougher. To have to avoid defeat against Australia in Australia is something few teams can boast of. That's another thing Smith knows first-hand, having been part of series losses and a win Down Under.
If the team can draw from and repeat the latter, it will give Smith yet another thing to put into perspective. "This is a big challenge for us," he said. "If we can come through Australia having been successful we will give ourselves an opportunity to create something special."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent