Calm Smith shakes off mind games
The last time South Africa visited Australia Graeme Smith tried to talk the series up as an action-packed thriller that might just have a surprise ending. Five losses in the six home-and-away Tests in 2005-06 turned the picture into a bloodbath for South Africa and, while many of the performers have changed, Ricky Ponting hopes the script will remain the same when the contest starts in Perth on Wednesday.
"There's no doubt a lot of those guys in the South African side have played a lot of cricket against us and would be carrying some of the scars from previous series," Ponting said. "It's up to us to make sure we start the game well enough on Wednesday to open some of those scars again."
The difficulty for Australia will be in instilling the same fear into the visitors with an attack that now features Jason Krejza and Peter Siddle where once it boasted Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. The success of the two superstars contributed to several of the South Africa batsmen having much lower averages against Australia than in their overall records.
Smith averages 22.25 in eight Tests against Australia, Jacques Kallis 38.32 from 18 games, AB de Villiers 23.25 in six Tests and Ashwell Prince 30.33 from nine matches. Ponting conceded it was Warne and McGrath who largely had the stranglehold on the batsmen but he did not believe that made the past history irrelevant.
"I know as a batsman you are always aware of what your record is like against different countries, whether it's against the guys that got you out in the past or not, or whether it's just about the team you're playing against," Ponting said. "All their batsmen will be aware that their records against us probably aren't as good as they are against some of the other countries.
"That's something that may be weighing on their minds. If we happen to bowl first hopefully we can do some damage early on and some of the batters, if we knock them over early, will start having all those doubts back in their mind again about competing against Australia in Australia."
Be it World Cup semi-finals or important Tests, Australia have had an edge over South Africa. Often it has been the South Africans who have talked up their chances only to fall when it came to performing on the field, but this time Smith has been noticeably quiet, which could be a worrying sign for Australia.
Ponting and the coach Tim Nielsen have both done their best to continue Australia's mental advantage over South Africa by putting the pressure squarely back on the visitors. Smith and his coach Mickey Arthur haven't exactly taken the bait. Smith is leading a side that has not lost a Test series since 2006 and mind games are not on his radar.
"The guys are far more settled now than they ever have been," Smith said. "Over the last year and a half, two years, the team has developed nicely and just moved forward. We're in a really good space. In terms of that [mental] stuff I don't think it's even been raised in our environment. We're all just looking forward to what's coming."
Smith's calm and composed attitude makes it hard to believe he is the same man who was at the centre of the pre-series bluster leading into the 2005-06 tour, when he felt he had to distract Australia's attention. After they drew the first Test in Perth during that trip, the rest of the season went downhill. Smith said his players were better off now.
"The lessons the guys have learnt are invaluable for our team, the experience they've gained," he said. "Even though it's not always on a positive front you learn a lot about yourself. You learn a lot about your team and how you've developed over the time, even to the point where you actually know how much better you are now."
Far from feeling that his own squad is under pressure, Smith believes Australia's evolving line-up will face a tough examination. Krejza and Siddle are playing their first Tests in Australia and without Stuart Clark, who Smith earlier in the week labelled Australia's most dangerous bowler, they could have a hard time containing a powerful batting order.
"The calibre of bowler that was on offer for Australia last time we were here was incredible," Smith said. "The likes of McGrath, Warne, those are very difficult people to replace. The guys who are coming in have obviously got big boots to fill. That's a pressure on them more than us. Them trying to step into that limelight is something that might be difficult for them."
But while each side has tried to deflect attention towards their opponents, the reality is that both teams are under significant pressure. South Africa are the No. 2 side in the world but strong tours of England and India could quickly be forgotten if they maintain their poor record against Australia. At least they will provide an unusually tough challenge at home for Ponting's men, whose steady decline would be complete if they became the first Australian side to lose a home Test series since 1992-93. It's time to find out if there is a new twist to the old script.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo