England v South Africa, 1st Test, Lord's July 9, 2008

Captains keep calm before the storm

Graeme Smith: a more mellow character, but wiser after five years at the helm © Getty Images
The damp weather that has enveloped Lord's for the past week showed no sign of abating on the eve of the first Test, as both England and South Africa were sent scurrying for the indoor nets for the third day in succession. The conditions, however, have done little to dampen the expectations ahead of a series that England's captain, Michael Vaughan, has described as "nearly up there with the Ashes". Given England's modern-day obsession with that precious little urn, praise doesn't get much higher than that.

For the time being, however, this series is far, far bigger than the Ashes, because it is happening right here, and right now. The protagonists include the two longest-serving captains in the world game, both of whom learnt more in the corresponding Lord's fixture in 2003 than most skippers glean from an entire season of experience. Also featuring will be the most talked-up pace attack since England's Ashes quartet was dismantled in September 2005, as well as a certain Kevin Pietersen, whose personal fortunes in the coming weeks could single-handedly fill every newspaper from Cape Town to Coventry.

And yet, compared with previous series between these two nations, the war of words in the build-up to the Test has been comparatively tame. It's been a more mature, reflective approach from the two sides, both of whom recognise the challenge that lies ahead, but also the pitfalls of playing to the gallery too much. On a fractious 2004-05 tour, Graeme Smith called Vaughan "queer", and in 2006, Pietersen called Smith an "absolute muppet" - both are jibes that have caused more grief for the utterers than their intended victims.

This time, there's a clear sense that the two teams intend to let their cricket do the talking. "I've matured, Graeme's matured, and we're both very experienced captains," said Vaughan. "We'll both play it very tough but I hugely respect the job he's done in difficult circumstances in South Africa. He's generated a really good team. We've had our issues, but they are in the past."

If anything, Smith was even more conciliatory. As he returned Vaughan's complements with interest, you could almost envisage him tiptoeing around the outfield in this series, exchanging pleasantries with each incoming batsman. "I have a lot of respect for Vaughan tactically," he said. "He's done wonderful things with the England team, and generally they are very tough to beat at home, as any team is these days. This tour is a wonderful challenge and something, if we can pull it off, we'll be very proud of."

Smith is not the same bristling competitor of five years ago - the man who tore into England's bowlers with 621 runs in his first three innings of the series. He has morphed into a seasoned statesman, a captain with a keener grasp of diplomacy and, one suspects, mindgames. "Generally, I've just settled into who Graeme Smith is," he said. "I think when you're young you don't understand how you want to be presented or how you want to go about your work, but I've settled down and become a lot calmer, and more experienced tactically wise. At 22, you try to prove to the world and everybody that you can handle this job, and being singleminded was the one reason I could."

Smith spoke of his wish to repair relations that had been "roughed up" over the years, but you sensed that wasn't just for the sake of being liked. The animosity of his early approach was often counter-productive, because it heightened the desire of his opponents to put one over him. Take Pietersen for example. There's no question that he is the box-office topic this summer, the one man who stands most squarely between South Africa and their first series win in England since 1965. And yet, Smith could barely be drawn on the subject, preferring instead to lump him as just another wicket that South Africa will need to take en route to victory.

At 22, you try to prove to the world and everybody that you can handle this job, and being singleminded was the one reason I could - Graeme Smith reflects on his early years as captain

"I sure he's going to be hugely motivated to perform well, but I'm sure he'll feel a touch of pressure as well," said Smith. "He's become a key batter for England, and he's put himself in the front line in every series he's played, in terms of the way he's gone about it in the media, and on the field. We know he's a key player, and we've spoken a lot about how we are going to attack their different batters and how we're going to get them out. That's generally how we've focussed on him, so hopefully we'll execute our gameplans."

It could be a very cunning approach from Smith, who doubtless recalls the deluge of vitriol that greeted Pietersen's maiden one-day series against South Africa in 2004-05, when he absorbed all the hate and spat it back out in three furious hundreds from six visits to the crease. This time around, South Africa have decided that the silent treatment is the better option - so silent, in fact, that last week Allan Donald decided to nominate Ian Bell, a serial spotlight-avoider, as England's key performer. Inwardly at least, Pietersen will be bristling to be overlooked in such a manner.

Vaughan, however, is confident that whatever emotions Pietersen may be feeling on the eve of battle, he will channel them to optimum effect. "Hopefully he'll react in the same way he did in South Africa," said Vaughan. "Kevin's a wonderful player who seems to like the spotlight and the big occasion. This is a big series and he's done well against pacy bowling in the past, so we're looking for him to have a really good series. He looks like he's got that little glint in his eye to go on and get a big score."

Vaughan's confidence extended beyond his star batsman. As the rain continued to fall, so England's faith in their seam and swing attack became ever more justified. Andrew Flintoff may have joined their indoor session with a view to his probable recall for Headingley next week, but for the time being James Anderson, Ryan Sidebottom and Stuart Broad are the men entrusted with ending England's improbable run of six consecutive Lord's Tests without victory.

"It's a series I think we can win, we're on home soil and I think conditions can favour the style of bowlers we have," said Vaughan. "They do have an abundance of pace, which is nice to have, but I believe we've got a set of bowlers who are skilful. Ryan Sidebottom has caused problems for every batsman he's come across in the last year, Jimmy Anderson got better and better throughout the Test series against New Zealand, and Stuart Broad really bowls well beyond his years."

There's no out-and-out menace in England's attack, but the skills that saw off New Zealand will doubtless test a South African line-up that contains only five players with prior experience of English conditions. "It's a proper Test-match series, and it's what everyone wants to see," said Vaughan. "Whenever you play Australia or South Africa, you see a real contest. It's very good on the eye for the spectator."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo