South Africa v England, 2nd Test, Cape Town January 1, 2016

South Africa call on England's nemesis

During the Durban Test, Graeme Smith was outspoken about the state of the South Africa team. Now he has been brought back into the fold but without bat in hand, or the team under his control, can he make a difference?
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When Alastair Cook took over as England captain in 2012, he may have glanced at the FTP and exhaled. South Africa were only due to visit in five years so he was safe from Graeme Smith. When Smith retired a year-and-a-half later, all England's potential captains would have collectively breathed a sigh of relief. They were all safe. Or were they?

South Africa's former captain - the man who took out Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss on successive visits - is back, although not with bat in hand. Smith has been brought in as a batting consultant after being outspoken on South Africa's problems during the opening Test in Durban. Quite what the terms of his role are remain a little unclear, and he will continue his commentary duties, but he is back in the fold.

England know that Smith is hardly ready to strap on the pads and stop the rot himself but they will be aware of the influence he can have just through his presence, which is what South Africa want from him anyway.

"Graeme was not the most technically correct batter himself but he has got a good know how about Test cricket and that's what Test cricket is about. It's about having a feel for the game and we've got a lot of youngsters that can draw on that," Hashim Amla, South Africa's captain said.

Twenty-four hours is too short for Smith to impress on Dean Elgar, Stiaan van Zyl, Faf du Plessis, Temba Bavuma, JP Duminy and Amla himself everything that he learnt over 12 years as an international cricketer but he may be able to sum some of it up in that time. If he does it will probably sound something like this: "Be tough, be firm, believe in yourself and believe you are better than the opposition, especially this opposition."

Smith always thought South Africa had more than England when it came to heart and stomach. He thought it in 2003 when he was called "what's-his-name," by Hussain and made sure no-one ever forgot it, he thought it in 2008 when he silenced Vaughan and he thought it in 2012 when he labelled Andrew Strauss a "head-boy," in charge of a side fraught with dressing-room issues.

The last of those could easily be the South African story now and there's little doubt Smith wants to stop that. He saw the team achieve too much. He oversaw the team when they achieved it. And to watch from the sidelines as it is undone hurts him.

But there is also a back story to this.

Smith retired less than two years ago, in March 2014, unexpectedly at the age of 32. Although he had not scored more than 20 in six innings he had come through adversity before. Smith's double hundred against Pakistan in the UAE five months before revealed a new side of his determination, the side that could overcome a slew of left-armers in subcontinental-style conditions.

But three Test matches later another left-armer, Smith's own nemesis Mitchell Johnson, was slicing through South Africa and the captain had had enough. He moved aside, three months after Jacques Kallis, and with no obvious successor. Amla, AB de Villiers, and Dale Steyn had the most experience, Faf du Plessis, JP Duminy formed part of the senior core but no one stood out like Smith did. No one could have been expected to, given Smith's lengthy rein and dominant personality.

When Amla was unveiled, it came as something of a surprise. He had previously resigned from franchise captaincy to concentrate on his batting and had stepped down as the ODI vice-captain because he did not want to have to stand-in on the occasions de Villiers was unavailable. That Amla went from having an almost allergic reaction to being the authority to wholeheartedly accepting the job raised suspicions he had been coaxed into captaining. De Villiers, meanwhile, went on record saying he was disappointed not to get the job.

Hashim, this is how you beat England © Gallo Images

Despite the uncertainties over the leadership structure, South Africa's first year without Smith was successful but sparse. They won a series in Sri Lanka for the first time in two decades which suggested they were on the right road but then only had Tests against Zimbabwe and West Indies, so it was difficult to judge whether they were making real progress.

In Bangladesh, the matches were washed out but there were signs of batting frailty and when the stern examination came in India, South Africa failed. Just as that series came to an end, Smith was in the UAE for the Masters Champions League auction and let slip that he was pondering a comeback, especially as he was "watching the boys struggle in India and wondering if I could contribute."

Given how badly South Africa had done in India, and how they had struggled to find a suitable opening pair, it seemed plausible for the England series before South Africa's convener of selectors, Linda Zondi, cut short that suggestion.

"Anyone who plays franchise cricket is eligible for selection," Zondi said when the squad to face England was announced. Smith would need to come back up through the ranks if he wanted a return.

He was perhaps simply concerned that the team he took to No.1 had declined so sharply in the space of a year and he continued to harbour hopes of a return. In a column for the SA Cricket Magazine website, Graeme Pollock confirmed Smith discussed it with him when he visited him two months ago.

For this England tour, though, Smith was contracted as a commentator for the four Tests, for both Test Match Special and the host broadcaster SuperSport. At the first chance to play his shots, he did.

On the second morning of the game, a story emerged in the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport that de Villiers was mulling early retirement, much like Smith did. On the third morning, de Villiers confirmed he was contemplating ways to "manage his workload," but did not mention quitting. The same day, Smith said on air that he did not think de Villiers' interview was "that convincing," and went on to indicate he had information supporting claims of unhappiness. "My sense is that there's a few rumblings in the South African camp at the moment." Smith said.

Smith continued to pick apart his former team-mates as South Africa's situation worsened, eventually saying they "need strong leadership." As the strongest leader they have ever had, he would know.

South Africa themselves created distance from Smith. At the post-match press conference, Russell Domingo dismissed Smith's comments of dressing-room drama. "The issues or the gripes that he is perceiving - I'm not too sure where they are coming from," he said. Two days later, Smith was in the nets with South Africa.

It is not difficult to think that South Africa have reached out to Smith - and not one of the other batting consultants they have used such as Gary Kirsten or Mike Hussey - so they can stop him from turning against them, but Amla said Smith's stinging words had not hurt them too much.

"The reality is when you win or lose, you either get praise or criticism. That's the nature of international sport," he said. "When people criticise the team, there will be some value in that and you take it on the chin and move on. That's how I see criticism in my own personal game as well as for the team. Graeme has got a lot of value to add and we've got to tap into that."

Amla did not see Smith's presence as undermining his own ability, especially as Smith also had a shaky start. "Graeme knows more than most how it is to play Test cricket and to go through tough times. Early in his career, there were a few crushing defeats as well. He is well aware of how difficult it is as a team and how important it is for a team to reassess.

"We've got a very strong belief. We have managed to bounce back from many setbacks. To remain positive is a challenge sometimes but the South African spirit is always there." Smith embodied that spirit.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • hburger on January 2, 2016, 9:44 GMT

    Why is Stephen Cook not in the team? He has an average of 173 in first class cricket this season? He is a specialist opener. Why not select him rather than to retread Van Zyl? Van Zyl should be down the order, probably where Mbavuma is batting.

  • Duidelik on January 2, 2016, 9:25 GMT

    This team is sure to lose their number one ranking in tests pretty soon. SA cricket has lost that mongrel and fight that ensured they could take it from teams like the Aussies and give it back too. The first person that should go is the coach. What mark has Russell Domingo stamped on this team since his arrival? He's like turned a billion dollar corporation into a million dollar corporation! My solution:...Bring Smith back AND make him captain, otherwise he will just be another toothless player. Swallow their pride and bring in a foreign head coach, preferably an Aussie! That is the only way they will turn this rot around fast!

  • B.C.G on January 2, 2016, 8:21 GMT

    @YORKSHIREPUDDING When Smith got the captaincy,Donald had already retired from tests,Kirsten followed soon after & Klusener was like a poor version of KP.Creating discord amongst the players but wasn't contributing anything like KP did either in tests or ODI's.Infact since Cronje's scam was exposed,Klusener's performances dipped sharply.He was never the same again.Polly suffered a major injury in 2001 & his pace was well down thereafter.When Smith took over,Pollock was 3rd seamer & a useful batsman.Boucher was decent but only Kallis & Ntini could guarantee consistent performances for that team.Basically he had a pretty patch work side to work with.

  • Kulaputra on January 2, 2016, 7:52 GMT

    It is not surprising that a team that was addicted to Jacques Kallis is now slowly getting the drug out of its system and is suffering withdrawal symptoms. The best thing to do is make AB captain of the test team and see Amla bat normally. Can't understand the move of making Amla the captain and AB playing as a WK.

  • YorkshirePudding on January 2, 2016, 7:19 GMT

    @BundyBear, To be honest when Smith became captain of SA there were a number of stars in the team, Pollock, Donald, Kirsten, Boucher, Ntini, Kallis spring off the top of my mind. I think Klusener was in the mix as well.

    In terms of his captainct skills they are without doubt, however to expect a turn around in 2 days is asking a lot, hi might be able to start turning the team around by the 3rd or 4th test. What surpises me is that SA have not approached Kirsten, a coach I have a lot of respect and oversaw thier rise to number 1.

  • Thommo7 on January 2, 2016, 7:00 GMT

    @ MERVO __ MJ has retired so Smith may well make a comeback .

  • Zafar_Abbas on January 2, 2016, 6:56 GMT

    totally agree with Alexk400 comments

  • Mervo on January 2, 2016, 6:22 GMT

    Smith is young enough to make a comeback. I suspect he would now like to. Really Amla has to step up this time. His constant failures place so much pressure on ABD.

  • bundybear55 on January 2, 2016, 6:15 GMT

    I note some of the comments allude to Smith having a superstar team at his disposal. Well, AB, Amla, Steyn weren't in the team when he took over - they only came into the side in 2004 and really only started performing consistently from about 2007 onwards. You'd have to think he had a fair bit to do with the development of those 3 who did all go on to become superstars of the game. It should also be remembered that when he took over the captaincy the Hansie Cronje affair was still very much at the forefront of SA cricket. I believe he had one of the most difficult assignments ever given to a captain of a sporting team and that as a 22 year old..! The fact he was able to galvanise that team and mould it into a successful unit speaks volumes for him as a cricketer and a leader. Getting him involved again in any capacity has to be a positive move. Well done to whoever brought it about.

  • King900 on January 2, 2016, 5:48 GMT

    If Smith was so valued as a "batting" consultant ... why was he not roped in earlier ? Or, is this an attempt to silence criticism of the team in the commentary box, like Smith has been doing ? SA needs an international coach eg Tom Moody.

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