The Wisden Cricketer, SA October 26, 2005

Cold war

The South Africa-New Zealand series may seem like just another humdrum barrage of ODIs but there could be a particularly pronounced whiff of cordite in the air

Graeme Smith: 'I have a clear vision of where I want the team to go and how I'd like us to play' © Getty Images

His nose was dripping like a tap in a public toilet and his ears were blue. He rubbed his hands together in search of warmth but even boyscouts can't start a fire with two wet sticks. Frozen sticks. Welcome to the South Island; late summer in Dunedin. Most South African cricketers cannot imagine playing a benefit match in a rugby stadium, never mind a fully-fledged one-day international, yet here was Graeme Smith about to lead his troops into battle for the fourth in a series of six games -- close enough to the Antarctic to see South Pole holidays advertised in every High Street travel agent.

Forget the 'House of Pain'. For Smith and his team, March 2004 in New Zealand was the Tour of Pain, both physically and mentally. October 2005 in South Africa, they hope, will be the Tour of Revenge'. There was little to hint at the disaster to come when Smith's 72 and Shaun Pollock's calm experience guided South Africa to a five-wicket victory with two balls to spare in the opening game at Eden Park. Smith's 80 couldn't prevent the Kiwis from swarming to a five-wicket win of their own at Christchurch three days later, but the tide, not to mention the weather, had turned.

Torrential rain in Wellington should have resulted in a cancellation but Smith was persuaded by desperate locals using emotional arguments concerning a large crowd and the titanic efforts of the groundstaff, to play in unfit conditions. A 38-over game on a dangerous outfield was lost by six runs. Temperatures on the scheduled day of the fourth game in Dunedin plunged to a wind-chill factor of minus-10 degrees and icy rain saw it postponed by 24 hours.

The abrasive Kiwi coach, John Bracewell, soured relations between the teams even more by snubbing opposite number Eric Simons' attempts to talk civilly and the game began with ice in the air, literally and metaphorically. The tourists were drilled by six wickets. Returning to Auckland for the fifth match, SA could still square the series with victories there and in the final game in Napier. But Stephen Fleming stood on the verge of history, a first ever series victory against South Africa for his country, and he would stop at nothing to ensure victory.

In fact, he extended the boundaries of decency and gamesmanship to their absolute limits -- perhaps beyond -- with a premeditated and furious verbal assault on Smith just moments before he began South Africa's attempt to reach a revised target of 178 in 29 overs. And it worked. Smith watched aghast from the change-room as Jacques Kallis produced one of the most jaw-dropping displays of mistiming ever seen by a senior batsman at international level, finishing with a gentle 58 not out from 59 balls as the tourists chugged in to port three runs short of their target ... having lost just five wickets.

The tragi-farce became tragi-comedy in the final game when the team - by now riven with doubt, division and argument - slumped to 119 for 9 before last man Makhaya Ntini produced a once-in-a-lifetime batting performance making 42 in a total of 186 for 9. But the home side still galloped home by five wickets. The series? An ignominious New Zealand 5, South Africa 1.

At the end of the tour, which was salvaged with a Test victory in Gary Kirsten's final match to square that series, Fleming took Smith out to dinner to 'clear the air'. South Africa's young captain said afterwards that the experience had been 'alright'.

Today, two years into his captaincy, Smith laughs about the Fleming 'attack' but does not deny there will always be an added edge in contests between the two men: "We had a couple of beers together playing county cricket in England and we were on the same team in the Tsunami Benefit match, so we've sorted everything out - off the field, anyway. We'll always have an explosive relationship on the field - we both play it as hard as possible - but we're fine for a beer afterwards now," Smith says, before pinpointing where he believes much of the 'problem' arises.

"John Bracewell is the slimy one. He is behind most of these schemes and I have no doubt he'll have something like it planned for us once again," Smith said. "But I'm far more comfortable with my captaincy now, I have a clear vision of where I want the team to go and how I'd like us to play - and I'm not going to be distracted from that," Smith emphasises.

For Albie Morkel, the 2004 tour was supposed to represent his arrival in the big-time. He was used prominently with the ball and bravely as a pinch-hitter up the order. Instead, the experience was not only disappointing but confusing, too. "It was my first overseas tour with the national team and I knew that something wasn't right. I had been hoping for something more as far as team spirit was concerned but there was something wrong. Obviously I heard about the problems much later on but at the time, as a junior player, you just keep your head down," says Morkel.

Recollections of the extreme weather conditions still make Morkel laugh today: "It rained all the time in Auckland and the wind in Wellington made it hard to stand up, never mind play cricket. And in Dunedin I was colder than I have ever been in my life, seriously. And it was summer! I was 12th man for the Dunedin game and I just couldn't find enough clothes in the changing room," Morkel recalls.

By the time New Zealand had concluded their hiding of Smith's depleted and depressed troops there was more bad blood between the teams than you'd find at a cat-fight in a convent. Depending on your point of view, Stephen Fleming had either taken his already ingenious captaincy to new heights, or allowed it to probe new depths. In a calculated bid to unsettle South Africa's key men, Fleming had treated Smith in a series of wildly unpredictable and baffling ways culminating in the manic tirade of abuse just seconds before he took guard at Auckland's Eden Park.

New Zealanders tend to be timid travellers, at least sports teams do. It's something to do with their geographically-challenged home location and the nanny state it has become. A sign of their paranoia on foreign soil was the appointment of the disciplinarian, head-masterly Lindsay Crocker as manager on tour to Zimbabwe last month, a move that resulted in a virtual gag of the players and didn't allow Fleming, usually so fluent and willing, to reminisce about his 'engagement' with Smith.

But at the time, he was Machiavelli and Iago combined: "Just an exchange of captaincy ideas with Graeme," he smiled sweetly. "It was mutually beneficial, I'm sure." Then he stuck the knife in again, and twisted. "I'm not intelligent enough to analyse all these things he keeps bringing up," he replied when told of a Smith complaint, sarcasm seeping from every pore. "They had most things in their favour during this (Auckland) match and we beat them."

Fleming's six years as national captain gave him all the confidence he needed to believe he could outsmart his younger, less experienced opposite number -- but he needed the same job doing on the man he regarded as South Africa's pivot, Jacques Kallis. Morkel remembers well what happened: "They got Brendon McCullum to do the same job on Jacques ... he was on his case the whole time, just doing absolutely anything he could to unsettle Jacques. He simply wouldn't leave him alone or shut up."

History will record that Kallis enjoyed a good tour -- at least statistically -- but there is little doubt that he was also, at various times, rattled by the ranting of the perceived runt behind him. At times he even allowed it to show, raising his bat in the direction of the wicket-keeper and asking him, not very politely, to shut up.

Kallis himself says (with a wry chuckle) of his McCullum confrontations: "I really can't remember much about him and what he was saying. Obviously he's mad, they all are. I've yet to meet a sane wicketkeeper. "Yes, I think he was chirping me a bit but I just can't recall much detail. I wouldn't be surprised if they try it again ... I don't mind the odd word; it can keep you on your toes.

"Anyway, the series won't be decided by who says what to whom. It will be decided with bat and ball. It should be a helluva contest." "Jacques has an amazing ability to focus and shut things out of his mind, but he's not one to shy away from a battle," says his close friend Mark Boucher.

"New Zealand and South Africa have a similar sports history -- and there will always be people trying to get under the opposition's skin. If someone takes Jacques on again this time, he'll be ready. And Graeme is ready for Stephen Fleming," Boucher adds with calm certainty. Fleming, of course, would be a fool to repeat the same tactics - and he is no fool. Quite the opposite. Nobody, least of all Smith, expected his attack at Auckland and nobody expected Kallis, in the middle of a record-breaking batting sequence, to be the victim of such heated disrespect. It was precisely that element of surprise that worked in the Kiwis' favour.

Morkel has no doubt that the return series will be equally heated while Boucher has gone so far as to identify potential targets for Fleming's mind games: "Young guys who have made an impression early in their international careers; someone like AB (de Villiers), perhaps. They'll try to unsettle anyone they see as vulnerable," Boucher says. It's not a reputation or a job that Boucher enjoys quite as much as he once did, but the truth remains that he is still the designated 'enforcer' in Smith's team and when the going gets tough, he's the man the team looks to get going.

"Maybe," he says, clearly believing it's time to tone down the fighting talk. "You don't start abusing a player for the sake of it, calling him names and behaving like an idiot. Cricket is a contest between bat and ball and if you forget that, you will lose nine times out of ten." Indeed. But Boucher would still 'climb in' if necessary ... right? "Well, if you have to look after your teammates then you can't back down. Sometimes a bit of aggro brings out the best in a player. But you can't get half-involved -- if you're going to get stuck in then you have to go all the way," Boucher says. Even more critically, says Boucher, "You have to perform and have the record to justify your talk.

"Jacques, for example, has the record to say what he likes. I hope McCullum has a good tour to South Africa because he'll find it tough to say the things he does if he's playing poorly," Boucher says before paying tribute to the obvious qualities that Fleming's current side has. "They're playing about nine all-rounders at the moment, and just about all of them can bat anywhere in the order. Daniel Vettori batted at number 11 in Zimbabwe (last month) and he's opened in the past. They really do have some top-quality cricketers and they're not going to be easy to beat. I'm the first to give them credit for the way they played almost two years ago, and they've become an even better team since then.

"But we have changed a lot, too. We went through a terrible period back then; it was almost as though we were scared to win. People talk about a fear of failure but the opposite can be true -- you can be scared to win. We were trying so hard, and the harder we tried the tenser we became. Every time we had a chance to win we seized up; it was a nightmare."

The New Zealand tour was bad, everyone knows that. But, painful as it is to think about now, the team had yet to reach its nadir. That happened six months later when they failed to win a single game in Sri Lanka while losing the Test series 1-0 and the one-dayers 5-0. Then, a week later they finally ended a 10-match losing streak with a victory against Bangladesh in the first round of the ICC Champions Trophy in England - before losing again immediately to the West Indies. The emotional bruising sustained by senior players during that period has not disappeared, with the result that Boucher's fighting talk is wrapped in a veil of caution.

But it is still there: "I don't want to make any big statements or make any predictions before the tour, but I hope for New Zealand's sake they can adjust quickly to our conditions. As good a team as they are, there isn't much doubt that they're more suited to slower, lower wickets than we normally get in SA. Early in the season there also might be a bit of extra grass and extra bounce. We'll see," Boucher says.

Fleming? He wasn't allowed to talk about the series last month but there was little doubt that the Kiwi skipper expects to win - and there is no limit to his one- day ambitions. "If we can keep this group together for the next year-and-a-half, I would say we would have a very strong chance at the next World Cup," Fleming said in Zimbabwe.

Right, seconds out ...

Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency. This article first appeared in The Wisden Cricketer's South African edition. To subscribe to The Wisden Cricketer, SA, click here