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August 15, 2012
The last time Graeme Smith showed such obvious signs of irritability at a press conference was during the 2011 World Cup. Constant use of the dread 'c-word' took its toll on the South African captain and he resorted to an assortment of belligerence, sarcasm and cynicism in reply.
Since then, South Africa's upward trend has meant Smith has seldom had to navigate his way through tricky lines of questioning. On Wednesday, that changed. Smith spent more than a third of his time in front of the press talking about Kevin Pietersen and it took only a few minutes to draw a snappy response from him.
"The notion that we have tried to nail Kevin or put things out in the media is just ridiculous. I've never heard such a load of rubbish," Smith said when asked if he had personally seen any of the messages. Smith said he had "seen nothing" of the messages and the content of conversations between Pietersen and any of the South Africa players was not a topic of discussion in their changing room.
"On this trip, we've played our cards close our chests. We've focused on the cricket, we haven't got involved in anything outside that and you can see that in the way we've played on the field. For us to be dragged into this is disappointing," Smith said.
Suggestions that South Africa leaked the messages to the media, to put Pietersen in an awkward position, have been played down since the story broke at the weekend. Team manager Mohammed Moosajee did not sway from his insistence that the texts were nothing but "friendly banter" although Pietersen has now confessed that they were "provocative".
Jacques Kallis' advice that opposition counterparts should be "careful" what messages they send each other during the match has been the only indication from the South Africa camp that there is more to the story.
Smith maintained that he had no knowledge of the exact wording of the texts but obviously knows something of their general mood. He said Pietersen chose an "interesting word" in describing them as provocative. "Kevin has relationships with people that he plays with, he has grown up with people, he has played IPL with people. Maybe he invited them for dinner, I don't know," Smith said. "I don't have any information that can make your stories better or more interesting."
One thing Smith could say with certainty was he was confident no one in his camp had deliberately set out to start a sideshow. "I honestly cannot say for one instant that one of our guys has done something wrong. I'm proud of the way the guys have handled themselves.
"In world cricket, people are always saying that you need to have better relations between teams, you need to socialise more, that's the way it used to be back in the old days, the professional era has taken that away and now you are saying to me we should just ignore each other."
He was careful not to absolve everyone, though. "Obviously Kevin feels he has done something wrong and he has apologised for that. Whether that's to get back into the England team or to sort out relationships, that is the process he has to take. From our perspective it's just been so overboard really. I can't believe it's still carrying on."
The Pietersen affair has resulted in a significant diversion from the series, which has gone to the final match to determine who the No.1 Test side will be. The advantage is with South Africa, as they are 1-0 up, and some may argue also because the absence of Pietersen will weaken England.
Kallis and AB de Villiers have implied that England would be poorer without Pietersen and their captain agrees. "He is a world-class cricketer. For England to say they are not going to miss him is wrong. The way he plays the game, the nature of what he offers England, they will miss that."
But he would not say that Pietersen's omission will give South Africa the upper hand. "There's a talent pool that we need to respect in England cricket. England have a large base of confidence that they've built up over a period of time and for us to take that for granted is not the way we prepared for this tour, not the way we train and not what we have come to achieve.
"Our focus will be on hopefully playing better cricket than England and not allowing our egos to get involved in whether Kevin is better than Jonny Bairstow. We are not going to get involved with that in our minds."
With the No.1 ranking only a draw away, Smith said South Africa have done everything they can to stay focused. "We've come to here to play cricket, we wanted to be the best team here," he said. "We want to play the better cricket than England. To get involved in this stuff is what we are trying to stay away from on this whole tour."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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