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In terms of producing the goods when his team needs a leading role there are few better than Smith
January 15, 2010
Remove from the equation the fact that Graeme Smith had a huge stroke of luck early in his 105. This was another captain's innings of the highest order. There are many more graceful batsmen in the game and many who are more technically sound, but in terms of producing the goods when his team needs a leading role there are few better than Smith.
It is impossible not to admire his single-minded determination. The situation today was ideal for Smith to take the game by the scruff of the neck, as he did at Newlands last week through his brutal 183, with South Africa needing to push on after routing England for 180. There has only been one side in this match so far and Smith, who hasn't been shy of making big statements during this tour, is desperate to make England pay this time.
"It's a pretty meaningful one," he said of his hundred, which followed the recent death of his grandfather. "It's been a tough month having lost a family member and things haven't gone as we would have liked. We've played good cricket but have just lacked the knockout punches.
"We've dominated the first two days of this Test. I would like to think we are the hungrier team. I think we've played that brand of cricket in this game. Hopefully we can jump on the fact that they are 1-0 up and maybe won't be giving 100%."
As with his innings at Cape Town this was a knock with distinct phases. Unlike England's batsmen yesterday, Smith realised the new ball was a time to show respect to the bowlers. On the first evening, and again this morning, he was watchful against the swing and seam movement. Once he had done the hard work, he began to take advantage of the softer ball and the bowlers' increasing desperation.
"This was a big day and I knew it would go around," he said. "You have to dig deep. I know I'm not the prettiest batsman, but I pride myself on being effective and sticking to my game plans, capitalising when I see my opportunity. Towards the back end of that first session, once I'd got through that tough period, I felt England had tired a bit with their three seamers and it was an opportunity for us against an older ball."
In his first 69 balls Smith struck two boundaries in 24 runs, but when he brought up his hundred it was with his 16th four. The most enthralling period of the innings once again came when he was facing Graeme Swann, who beat Smith with a ripping off-break in his first over. Smith was determined to dominate, however, and although that came with risks it also brought great rewards.
The contrast between the form of Smith and his opener partner, Ashwell Prince, couldn't be greater. Prince did well to survive tough conditions on the previous evening, but never gave any sense of permanency about his stay at the crease and it was no great surprise when, three balls after Smith's reprieve, he edged Stuart Broad to second slip. If this match goes according to plan for the home side he may not get another innings with which to prove himself, and his place for the tour to India has to be in doubt.
It is a tough situation for Prince, who is a middle-order batsman by trade but was shoehorned into the opening role at the end of last year's home series against Australia. He began with 150 at Cape Town, but admitted before this series that he would be happier back in his traditional position. The problem, though, is a log-jam in the middle order and a shortage of openers.
The early signs were promising when he battled to an important 45 on the opening day of the first Test at Centurion, but since then it has been a tale of diminishing returns, while Smith's contributions have gone the other way. Even if South Africa end up securing a share of the spoils in this campaign, their best opening partnership of the series is the 36 made in this innings. That is not an ideal foundation even if Smith's own performances are helping to compensate.
Alviro Petersen is next in line for the opening slot, having impressed during the one-day series, and has been part of the Test squad throughout England's tour. Youngsters who are in contention include Dean Elgar, the Eagles batsman, who tops the domestic batting charts with 892 runs at 68.61 but is again a middle-order player. Rilee Rossouw, a 20-year-old who also plays for Eagles, is very highly rated and has enjoyed a strong season in both four-day and one-day cricket, while the other name suggested is Cape Cobras' Andrew Puttick.
One other option, albeit an unlikely one, is to return to the man who had the job before Prince and recall Neil McKenzie, who himself moved from the middle order to forge a successful spell alongside Smith. Prince may yet survive the chop, but which ever route the selectors take in the next few weeks Smith's own performances deserve a partner who can offer him more support.
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