Smith builds foundation for South Africa, again
Facts come in different flavours. There are the mild ones that do not require much paying attention too because they exist without really having an effect, like the weather; the more important ones that pique interest, like the colour of a pitch and then there are the red-hot ones, that stand in front of you like a scorching flame, impossible to ignore. The fact that South Africa have never lost a Test when Graeme Smith has scored a century, is one of the latter.
Twenty-three times before today Smith has reached three figures in Tests, 16 of those have been part of a South Africa win and seven were scored in draws. Cricket's greats range from the immovable wall that is Rahul Dravid to the ever-moving one that has become Chris Gayle and rarely, often wrongly, is Graeme Smith not counted among them. Although not always pleasing on the eye - his batting style is based on a sometimes questionable heavy bottom hand technique and sheer grit - Smith has been a pillar for South Africa and regularly builds the foundation from which they can win matches, as he has probably done again in Dunedin.
"It's not the type of wicket that you are going to walk out on and manage to hit it all over the park," Jacques Kallis, who shared in a 200-run stand with Smith and scored a century of his own said. "It was about grafting, old school, ugly cricket, that was what was required." In other words, it was an ideal situation for Smith.
Although the pitch was flat, it was not fast and the ball did not come on to the bat with any special ease. There was also enough in the surface, according to Kallis, for New Zealand's bowlers to make run-scoring tough with the right length. "It was the kind of wicket where you had to steer it for two or three and then maybe if you were lucky, you could time it well for four," he said. "They didn't give us any freebies."
What New Zealand also didn't do was create enough chances. Instead of making a direct attempt to attack, they waited for a mistake from the batsmen, which they hoped to force through sheer persistence. "There wasn't too much in the bowlers favour, not much pace or bounce or movement of the deck. It was matter of sticking to plans for certain batters," Doug Bracewell said.
The plan was a line that was consistently wide of offstump, which allowed Kallis and Smith to choose when they were ready to take risks. For Kallis, that was almost never. He left with impeccable judgement, never falling into the trap of lashing out or giving in to a loose stroke, a sign of his mental strength.
Smith was a little different. Doug Bracewell explained that New Zealand wanted to cut off his favoured on-side play. "Smith is unorthodox, you can't bowl your normal line because he is very leg-side dominant," he said. "We just worked out plans to bowl really wide to him to take out the leg side," he said. In the first innings, they did the same, but left the leg-side unpatrolled, giving Smith the freedom to take the ball from outside off and accumulate runs in the way he prefers.
In the second innings, Smith was not given that option but had started hitting the ball confidently on the off side - usually a sign that he is feeling good about his own batting. Like Kallis, he employed a cautious approach after the two early strikes and left more than he played. Unlike Kallis, he picked a time at which he felt ready to attack.
After tea, Smith decided to reach for some of the wide deliveries. He created his own risks by doing so, but having got himself in, appeared confident that he would not edge behind or if he did, he would edge hard enough not to be caught. He was not always right. When he was 91, he found the outside edge off a Trent Boult delivery but it did not carry to Martin Guptill. As Smith flirted with danger, New Zealand were given a small glimpse into what they may have been able to achieve if they had created more chances and looked to threaten the batsmen, rather than just contain them.
With Smith dismissed and Kallis showing no signs that he is willing to take similar chances, New Zealand will have to work even harder to restrict South Africa to a total that may be chaseable. South Africa have already identified that as one of at least 300. "Once you get over 300, chasing in a fourth innings is tough," Kallis said. "We'd like to push it to 400 given the amount of time left in the game, but we are nowhere near safe."
Bracewell hopes that New Zealand's batsmen would have learnt from South Africa's showing and will be willing to spend as much time at the crease as they were. "Once batsmen get in on a deck like that, it's pretty hard to get wickets. Hopefully a couple of our batters can have a look at their batsmen and bat for long periods," he said. "A couple of the guys are due for big scores as well. They've got starts and scored 40s, but that's not good enough for Test level."
Given the aggression of the South Africa bowling attack, New Zealand cannot bank on the same kind of passive approach. Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Imran Tahir will look for opportunities, rather than wait for them. That is a fact, too. Not one as commanding as Smith's record, but a fact New Zealand would be acutely aware of.
Edited by Nikita Bastian
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent