Australia are better prepared - Smith
Graeme Smith, the South Africa Test captain, has admitted his team are not as prepared as they would like to be for the upcoming series against Australia. The team had a seven-month layoff from international cricket over the summer, five senior members of the squad have not played a first-class game this season and South Africa appeared undercooked in the Twenty20 and ODI series.
"Australia are better prepared than us, that's the reality; there's no point hiding behind that," Smith said ahead of the first Test in Cape Town. "We've got to find a way to make sure we are ready to compete come day one. We've got to come out and play good cricket for five days. We've done as much as possible in our group to make sure we are ready and that's all we can control."
Smith, vice-captain AB de Villiers, wicketkeeper Mark Boucher, allrounder Jacques Kallis and pace spearhead Dale Steyn have not featured in the four rounds of SuperSport Series matches that have taken place.
During the limited-over matches, Smith, who spent the winter recovering from a knee injury, looked awkward and scored just one half-century in his five innings. de Villiers broke his hand during training with Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Champions League T20 and has since played just one domestic one-day game, in which he faced 21 balls and scored 12. Boucher called in Ray Jennings, the ex-South Africa keeper and coach, to assist him with fine-tuning his skills during the one-day series while Steyn has looked off the pace. Only Kallis appears to have been unruffled by the break.
"Going into a series against Australia, we would love to have had as much first-class cricket as possible," Smith said. He dismissed the notion that he should have sat out the one-day series and played first-class cricket instead. "I wasn't consulted. It was a decision that was out of my hands but I always want to play for South Africa if you give me the choice."
Smith's patchy form in the limited-over formats fuelled criticism that he was regressing into old technical problems, especially when he was dismissed by left-arm seamer Doug Bollinger twice in five innings. However, his Test record has remained unblemished and he averaged 53.94 in 11 Tests last year. He said his 57 in the second ODI in Port Elizabeth was the start of his return to his best.
"I felt that I was strong at the crease, my feet started moving well and I timed the ball well. It was about getting back to what my strengths are. Last year I had started to fall away from that a little bit."
Mitchell Johnson, the Australia fast bowler, caused Smith two hand injuries the last time Australia toured South Africa and Smith managed a wry smile when his old nemesis was mentioned. "I'll need to find a way to hit the ball back at him to fully get back. But, that's the nature of opening the batting: you take your blows and you move on."
After numerous hand injuries, Smith has a plan to avoid another one. "I've changed back to the old style glove that I used for the large part of my career and moved away from the glove that I used for the period where I had my issues. The physio has helped me build a little protection in that area. I've had good time to regroup from that. Maybe I came back from that [broken hand] a little too soon. Now, it's had time to regroup and get strong around the bones."
An injury-free and strong top three is what Smith says will be a "crucial factor" in beating Australia. With Hashim Amla steady at No. 3, the focus will be on the top two, where Smith will open the batting with one of the nine different partners he has had in his career.
Jacques Rudolph's prolific run-scoring since returning to South Africa, after three years as a Kolpak player with Yorkshire, has made him impossible to ignore and his return to the top-flight is being eagerly anticipated. "I've known Jacques for a long time, I played SA Schools against and with him and age-group cricket," Smith said. "He has gone away and really forged a top-class career for himself and earned his spot back in the side."
Like many, Smith expects the key battle in the series to be between quality batsmen and aggressive quicks and said Australia's strength remains their "good seam attack," which won them the tour match against South Africa A last week. "The spinner has always been the question mark for them and still is," Smith said. "They would like him to do well on this tour."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent