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Graeme Smith is a player for the big occasion. Show him adversity and he'll see a challenge to overcome
January 5, 2010
Graeme Smith is a player for the big occasion. Two of his finest innings, the unbeaten 154 at Edgbaston in 2008 and his 108 in the run-chase at Perth five months later, helped secure two of South Africa's most famous victories. Show him adversity and he'll see a challenge to overcome, so it is no surprise that he played a key role in setting up a position from which South Africa should level this series.
The hosts were shell-shocked after Durban and Smith faced severe questioning about the team's performance during the calendar year of 2009, in which their fortunes took a considerable dive. He, too, was clearly hurt by the slide from the heights they had reached in the previous year, and especially the way the side caved on that fourth day at Kingsmead to hand England their series advantage. He was determined to level the scores. In every sense.
Smith had virtually pre-empted this performance in his Saturday press conference. "When you are the type of captain who asks a lot of your players, you've always got to stand up and produce those performances," he said. "Man of the Series in England and Australia, those are the big occasions, and this is another one."
Even his first-innings 30 was important because it helped take the shine off the new ball, but Smith is a man who deals in hundreds and, against England, big hundreds - four out of five have now been above 150. He looked set for three figures in the first innings at Durban before contriving to get run out in a mix-up with AB de Villiers, and after that moment South Africa rarely had a foothold in the match. This time, however, he made no mistake.
A Smith hundred is rarely an object of beauty, but his brute force dovetailed perfectly with the more elegant and graceful Hashim Amla who made 95. They ensured England's hot and bothered attack never settled during their dominant stand of 230 in 54 energy sapping overs.
"We needed a day like today. We've been a little bit under pressure going into this Test match," said Morne Morkel. "To finish on such a high tonight, I know some of the guys sitting in the dressing room are really positive."
It was clear early on that Smith had his game plan set out. He negotiated the early new-ball bursts from James Anderson and Graham Onions with barely a shot in anger, but then his approach changed when Graeme Swann came on in the 10th over. South Africa have lived up to their pre-match promising of attacking the offspinner after Swann's dominance of them in recent weeks.
Smith's intent was clear from Swann's first ball as he brought out a huge sweep and survived a loud lbw shout. Two balls later he was almost caught at slip when Swann got one to bite, but the next delivery was savagely pulled through midwicket. Aggression was coursing through Smith's veins and he top-edged another sweep over the keeper and slip. He was living dangerously, but he was also making a point.
But after that, Smith reined himself in, and the battle between South Africa's captain and England's offspinner was intriguing. Swann, to his immense credit, still caused problems and thought he had Smith lbw on 51 only for the decision to be overturned on review. But for a big man Smith showed a lightness of footwork that made it difficult for Swann to settle, and a couple of full tosses were clipped away.
"He batted very, very well," England coach Andy Flower said. "I thought Swann troubled him but he fought off those troubles and it's been a superb innings."
When the hundred came with a flowing cover-drive off Graham Onions, Smith ran down the pitch with his bat held aloft as Newlands became awash with waving South African flags. He was far from finished, though, and had a little something saved up for Jonathan Trott's gentle medium pace which was dispatched for four boundaries in an over and six in eight balls. This was now Smith at his bullying best.
The pair were once team-mates at Western Province, but there is no love lost these days, and Trott has wound Smith up during this tour with his slow set-up at the crease. Now the game was being slowed up because the ball was being retrieved from the boundary.
When Smith made 141 against England in the Champions Trophy in September he suffered a bout of cramp and was denied a runner. However, this time, even with temperatures in the middle as high as 45 degrees, he was still fresh enough to attack the bowling deep into the final session and it was England on their last legs this time. When his country needed him, Smith put in a starring performance. It wasn't the first time, and won't be the last.
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