'You need to want to stick it out when times are tough'
2003 Graeme Smith was 22. He had played eight Test matches, none of them outside South Africa, when he was named the county's youngest captain. He had a few precious accolades to boast about, such as his call-up to the World Cup squad to replace Jonty Rhodes and a double-hundred against Bangladesh. He also had a burden that someone his age could not have been expected to carry with any ease: to lead a side to England and come back with something to show for it.
"I didn't have any expectation at all," Smith says to ESPNcricinfo in an exclusive interview. "I was just so nervous and I wondered how I was going to cope and how things were going to go. I didn't even know how to be."
The tour was scheduled after a relatively simple easing-in assignment against Bangladesh and started with a one-day tri-series that also featured Zimbabwe. South Africa beat their neighbours in the three matches they played against them but lost three times to England, including in the final. "We kind of stumbled our way through that one-day series. We just weren't very good," Smith remembers. "So there was a bit of pressure there already. It was more than just the pressure of going into a Test series."
Insecurity and Smith might now seem an odd couple but that was how he felt. He hid it behind layers of what seemed like arrogance because he thought that was a way of protecting himself from appearing weak. "You have your own nerves and your own stresses about how you are going to be able to handle things," he explains. "And your own worries. The players were great and very supportive throughout but the pressure of captaincy in a big series is another thing."
That anxiety eased significantly on the first day of the series, in Birmingham. Smith and Herschelle Gibbs showed England no mercy as they amassed 338 runs for the first wicket, scoring at over 4.3 runs to the over. Smith went on to break the South African record for the highest individual Test score at the time, and though the match was drawn, he emerged from it a winner, while England captain Nasser Hussain chose to step down in the aftermath.
Despite his feat in that game, Smith's most treasured memory of that tour is from the next match. He says the Lord's Test was a standout for him. "To win like we did, with Makhaya's [Ntini] ten wickets and my double-hundred, just gave me the self-confidence that I could handle the pressures. People were off my back from a 'what if' perspective. Rightly, your captaincy in a batting performance plays an important role and that really helped me establish myself."
England drew level in Nottingham before South Africa took the lead in Leeds, with an attack lacking Shaun Pollock, who had returned home for the birth of his child. "It was an exciting tour to be part of because of how the series swung," Smith says. "But the disappointing thing was not being able to hold on at The Oval. I've felt in England that by the time you get to The Oval, you're kind of drained and you've been through so much."
There was no trophy to go home with but there was pride, and for Smith there were also lessons to take back. "I realised how big the job was and how strong I needed to be to cope," he says. "I hardly slept through that series actually, especially the Test matches. It was my first taste of a big series. I discovered how much pressure there is everywhere we went. It came from the media, the public, and I learnt how important every session in the game was. I think I probably developed about three ulcers in that series."
Smith had nothing but raw talent on that first trip to England. He had to rely on his character traits to captain rather than on any real experience of leadership. "I was very determined and it got me through," he says. "I only learned the other aspects of the leadership later, through age and experience. But determination was a part of my make-up and it drove me in those early moments."
2008 Smith had captained South Africa in 18 Test series since the drawn outing in England. They won ten. Four of the six they lost were on the road, three on the subcontinent. After an indifferent start to his tenure, there was consistency. With that came a desire for more. A visit to England was a perfect opportunity to reach higher. "I was at a point in my captaincy where we needed to go to the next level as a team, and I needed to go to the next level as well," Smith says.
Much had changed about the composition of the South Africa side. Pollock, Gary Kirsten and Lance Klusener had retired and there was a push to create a more skills-based unit. "We had made some changes in terms of bringing in more fast bowlers and going with more specialist batters in the Test side," Smith says. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel would accompany Makhaya Ntini to form a pace barrage, and Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers formed a batting core around Jacques Kallis.
There was a sense that the squad was starting to take shape, and a belief that they could achieve big things. "We had a really solid trip to India before that, which we drew one-all and we had built up results as a team," Smith says. "We were on the right path, so we arrived in England quietly confident of our ability and with a self-belief that we could do it."
As in 2003, the first Test was drawn, but this time it was South Africa who had the worst of it. Smith, Neil McKenzie and Amla all scored second-innings centuries to save the game and give South Africa momentum going into the next match, at Headingley.
Smith's moment of the tour came from "the way Ashwell [Prince] and AB batted at Headingley". Their 212-run stand set South Africa up for a big win. England came back more competitively in the third Test, at Edgbaston, where Smith played a starring role with a second-innings century that earned him a reputation as a batsman for the big occasion. That innings also caused the downfall of Michael Vaughan, who resigned the England captaincy once the series had been lost.
"Getting the hundred to win the series was awesome but I was still disappointed with the way we finished," Smith says. A loss at The Oval allowed England to pull one back and was the start of a South Africa slump that carried into the one-day series, which they lost heavily.
Still, they had breached a once-impenetrable fortress. Their Test series victory in England was the first since readmission and it put them on track for another, perhaps even greater, achievement later that year. "That was our first massive stepping stone as a team and it boosted our chances of winning in Australia," Smith says. "Looking back, I'd say it was crucial."
2012 Smith is on the brink of his 100th Test as captain and three Tests away from breaking Allan Border's all-time record. South Africa have not lost a series away from home since 2006 in Sri Lanka. They have hovered close to the top of the Test rankings for months and now have an opportunity to achieve the summit. If they do, Smith will come full circle.
"I'm very excited," he says. "I guess nothing's changed but age as this cycle comes around again. Nine years in the captaincy is a long time and there is lot of changing and time to go through different aspects as a person. I'm at peace with everything now."
Smith has gone from an inexperienced player barely into his 20s to a married man about to become a father and someone who behaves in a nurturing fashion with younger players. He shrugged off cynics to emerge a hero in England and a darling in Australia. He was vanquished after the 2011 World Cup and redeemed himself with centuries in both Tests and ODIs after. As Achilles may have asked, is there no one else he can be?
There's nothing to hide or shy away from this time. The confidence does not have to be quiet anymore because it has been earned. Smith is not afraid to say it. "There's no doubt that we are going there to win. We've got the players who can win.
"The good thing is that a few of us have been there before and we know what it takes to win in England and how difficult it is. To have the opportunity to go and do it again, with so much on the line, and to be part of a series that everyone is looking forward to is something special."
For almost a decade, South Africa have built under Smith. This series could be the fitting reward that caps it. Smith believes they have put the right pillars in place. "Consistency in selection is always a big factor of sport and we've had a similar line-up in the Test side for a while, with one or two changes here and there," he says. "We've had consistent key performers over a while and guys who understand what it takes to perform at this level, under pressure and in front of big away crowds."
Of the current squad, five players have not been on a tour of England before, but only one, Marchant de Lange, has not played on the county circuit. Alviro Petersen, Imran Tahir, Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Vernon Philander have varying amounts of experience in English conditions. "To win in a country, you need to almost morph into that country," Smith said. "You need to think about how you are going to play in those conditions. That's one thing we've done really well. Wherever we've toured, we've understood how we need to play to be successful there."
The other important aspect is players feeling secure in their positions. "Role definition is a key factor," Smith says. Even Imran Tahir, whose much anticipated Test career has dwindled into a bit-part role, has adapted to play a holding role when needed. "This team as a whole is confident. We know we can be maybe 10% more and tweak our game in terms of being more dynamic and winning more, but we are confident."
Smith goes to England with years of experience behind him and his own style as a leader. On this tour he hopes to combine those with the one fundamental that has stayed with him since 2003 and that he trusts will bring him success. "It goes back to determination," he says. "You need to want to stick things out when times are tough."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent