Australia in South Africa 2013-14 February 25, 2014

Can runs replace talk for captains?

Neither Graeme Smith or Michael Clarke have been flush with runs in the Test series, but have had a fair bit to say about each other's teams

Unlike the two teams they lead, Graeme Smith and Michael Clarke have been doing their talking the way us normal folks do: with their mouths. Both leaders are short on form - with 37 runs for Smith and 60 for Clarke across four innings each - so they have to assert their authority by taking gentle at jabs at each other while leaving the rest of their XI to do the real roughing up.

"There's always a game being played within a game," Smith admitted after the second Test in Port Elizabeth. On that occasion it was a game Smith had won, despite Clarke hinting the South African captain was too conservative in his tactics.

When Clarke was asked when he thought the Australians would find themselves chasing, given the gloomy forecast for the fifth day and South Africa needing a victory to keep the series alive, the glint in his eye twinkled with mischief. "I'd have had five overs tonight," he said, to a room that swelled with laughter. Really? Of course not.

Then again, maybe he was not simply taking a dig. Clarke proved his penchant for not batting on regardless when he declared after 3.2 overs on the fourth morning at Centurion Park, with only two runs added to the Australian total. With a lead of 481 and having seen "enough in the pitch," to know the variable bounce would give South Africa no chance, Clarke sent Smith's team in and victory was promptly wrapped up in the final session.

Smith prefers to err on the side of caution. South Africa's overnight lead in Port Elizabeth after three days was 369. Most thought it was already enough, especially with the time left in the match because of the looming rain and the brittle Australian top order. Smith did not. He kept Hashim Amla at the crease for 90 minutes the following morning, until the advantage swelled to 447. Morne Morkel had predicted the evening before that 450 was the "magical number."

That gave South Africa just over five sessions to bowl Australia out but, with play looking likely to be washed out on the final day, it meant a likely two and a bit sessions. South Africa used every last minute of those, including the extra half hour awarded by the umpires, but managed to finish the match in time. In the end, they need not have worried. The rain only arrived at lunch time in Port Elizabeth on the scheduled final day so South Africa had the time they needed and Smith did not need five overs late on the third evening to win.

As it turned out, Smith said he always knew that. "The disappointing thing is that a lot of you fell for it," he joked, to the media. "The truth is that as a captain, you know what you want to do and how to get the best out of your guys."

That much is true for both. Clarke knows how to use Mitchell Johnson in short bursts and how to set fields the photographers can have fun snapping. The four short-midwickets he had for AB de Villiers was one example, and he only reduced them to three when de Villiers made a mockery of it and hit Peter Siddle for six over all of them. Smith has become astute in managing his bowlers, especially Dale Steyn, and coped well without the fourth seamer in Port Elizabeth. He also experimented with fielders, using close catchers at short cover more than in recent times.

"Graeme has learnt a lot from when he first started and you can see he is more adventurous with field placings," Peter Kirsten, the former South Africa batsman, told ESPNcricinfo. "On a slow wicket we saw him use two short covers, two short mid-wickets and that kind of thing."

One of those short covers was in place when Clarke drove loosely in the first innings in Port Elizabeth. That shot got him into trouble in the second innings, too, and extended his run of innings without passing 25 to 11. Smith is in an equally barren stretch, with four scores under 15 and seven innings since his last half-century. Clarke has set Johnson on him with success in three of the four innings in this series so far.

Smith may regard the left-armers hold over him as nothing more than "bull dot dot dot", which is also what he called a lot of Australia's big-talk before the series. Some of that included Peter Siddle saying Australia would target South Africa from the top-down, by going after the leader first. Australia have remained true to that promise and, perhaps subconsciously, have influenced South Africa to do the same thing to Clarke.

Overall, Kirsten said it seems the captains have the measure of each other in just about every way. "They're both strong personalities and have good strength of character. When you do as well as they've both done as leaders, it gives you a lot of confidence," Kirsten said. "It's all a bit of cat and mouse now but it's good to have some Jose Mourinho-style talk around cricket."

Which one of Smith or Clarke is really the special one may be decided after the Newlands Test.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent