South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Durban, 1st day December 26, 2009

Smith mix-up thickens the plot

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Graeme Smith and Kevin Pietersen don't go out of their way to be friends with each other, but at least now they will have something in common to talk about if their paths do cross. At Centurion last week, Pietersen had been in total control on 81 until his horrible mix-up with Jonathan Trott. Today, Smith was cruising towards a century on 75 not out, until an equally grim mix-up with AB de Villiers left him diving in vain for his crease.

It was a moment that changed the momentum of the day and left England buoyed on a sapping day in Durban. Things got worse for South Africa when JP Duminy fell to Graham Onions to undo much of the good work done by Smith and Jacques Kallis, who added 150 for the third wicket, and it came a quite a relief when bad light and a thunderstorm forced a premature close.

"It's frustrating when stuff like that happens, but unfortunately these things happen and it's not ideal," Kallis said. "It's not the first time it's happened and it won't be the last. We've moved on and the rest of the guys have to do a job.

"We had done really well up until tea and the day was clearly belonging to us, then that half-an-hour, losing those three wickets, wasn't ideal, and it's put the day in the balance when we had it by the scruff of the neck."

It was an awful way for Smith to go because he had played an impressive captain's innings. He has talked a good game since his team came within one wicket of victory at Centurion, but it's always easier for a skipper when he is also contributing in his primary role - and in the first Test he was the least productive of South Africa's batsmen. England have targeted him as one of the key scalps, and it was important for Smith not to allow the tourists to exert an early hold over him.

The omens weren't necessarily very good. The last time Smith batted at Kingsmead, against Australia in March, he left the ground with a broken finger courtesy of a hostile Mitchell Johnson, and he was wincing in pain on this occasion when Jimmy Anderson struck him on the left glove and caused a bruised finger.

It wasn't just the latest bash to his finger that made it painful going, but also the accuracy of England's early bowling which left Smith waiting until his 63rd delivery to collect a boundary. His innings was a model of self-restraint because he is someone who likes to impose himself on the opposition attack. This time, though, he realised such an approach would be foolhardy, and the best way to hurt England was to battle out the new ball and cash in as conditions eased.

His final tally of 75 from 186 balls was his second slowest score of fifty-plus in his entire 79-match career, behind only the 209-ball 74 he made against Sri Lanka, at Galle, in 2004. However, the best batsmen can adapt to conditions, and Smith certainly showed that skill.

He isn't a pretty player to watch, but it's impossible not to admire the steel with which Smith plays his cricket. He was repeatedly beaten early on, especially by Onions whose wicket-to-wicket line was proving a handful, but he helped his cause by playing the line rather than being drawn into chasing deliveries.

The fact that all his hard work was ended by a run-out will make it even more galling for South Africa, especially considering it came less than three overs after Kallis had also gone for 75 to end their hardworking partnership which spanned 45 overs.

For the sake of the Test match, however, a mini-collapse here and there will be no bad thing. The likelihood is that more time will be lost throughout the next four days to a combination of rain and bad light, so anything to move the match forward will keep the interest alive. Smith managed to do just that on the opening day with a combination of his guts, determination and an ultimately ungainly dismissal.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo