India in South Africa 2013-14 December 15, 2013

Smith braces for another Zaheer tussle

The South Africa captain has had his troubles against Zaheer - and other left-arm quicks - and his attempts to sort them out will be tested in the India series

Zaheer Khan may think, albeit somewhat cheekily, that he only needs to turn up to get Graeme Smith out and he would be surprised to learn the South African captain will probably be brushing off the brashness as nothing too serious.

"I can tell you now, Graeme doesn't think about Zaheer Khan at all," Jimmy Cook, Smith's former coach and long-time mentor, told ESPNcricinfo. "Mentally, he is one of the strongest cricketers I've ever worked with so he won't be bothered by what Zaheer said. And when he faces him, he won't think 'that's Zaheer Khan I am up against, I should be worried." He'll think 'Zaheer Khan, you're going to have a tough day because you're bowling to Graeme Smith.'"

This kind of playful trash talk is usually reserved for the boxing ring, not least because when it emerges in cricket, there's every chance it will earn the utterer a fine. As a result, press engagements can lapse into the predictable and it takes experienced and confident campaigners, like Zaheer, to spice them up.

The leader of India's attack will be the involved in what could turn out to the battle of the series. Between Zaheer and Smith - opening bowler to opening batsman, both of whom have returned from injuries looking leaner, fitter and stronger than before - the tone will be set. Zaheer knows that if India are to make South Africa dance to their tune in the two Tests, he will have to be the man to compose the first notes by making his advantage over Smith count for something.

Cook believes Zaheer won't be able to get that right this time, despite the numbers. Only Chris Martin has dismissed Smith more times in Test cricket than Zaheer - eight compared to six - and Martin has played two more Tests against South Africa. James Anderson has also accounted for Smith six times but that came in 17 Tests.

Of all bowlers currently playing, Zaheer is the one with the most success against Smith, underlined by when he gets him out as well as how. All but one of his dismissals - Cape Town 2007 - have come in the opening spell of the first innings which has meant Zaheer has often struck early blows against South Africa.

Using the left-armers angle, Zaheer has troubled Smith by moving the ball away from him for a period of time and then bringing one back into him. He discovered Smith's soft spot in the 2006 Boxing Day Test, although he only used it years later. That time, Zaheer's first three deliveries went away from Smith and the fourth moved in. Smith was squared up and Zaheer induced the outside edge which saw the ball squirt past cover. Zaheer seemed to remember that for a later date.

In the third over of that innings, Smith fetched a short wide ball outside the offstump, tried to pull and top-edged. In the next match of the series, the New Years' Test in Cape Town, Smith had the better of the Indian attack. He scored 94 in the first innings and 55 in the second before Zaheer got one to shape away late and Smith's prod handed the wicket-keeper a catch.

It was only in 2010 that Zaheer began asserting himself over Smith, using what he saw four years earlier. He accounted for Smith in the first innings in both Nagpur and Kolkata. Both times, the ball came into Smith and seemed to catch him unawares. He didn't move his feet enough, looked to play down the leg side but misjudged and was bowled.

"Graeme was playing the ball too early. When he did that, he would close the face of the bat and leave a gap between bat and pad. That's why he could get out," Cook explained. The dismissals above illustrate that perfectly. Both times, the ball snuck through the space Smith had left to clatter into his stumps.

It appeared Smith had a problem facing left-handed bowlers, with Mitchell Johnson also enjoying success against him in the same way. Johnson has dismissed Smith five times in eight matches and broken his hand twice. Johnson has also foxed Smith by first swinging the ball away from him and then bringing it back in. Even right-arm bowlers could exploit that angle, creating a similar one by bowling from around the wicket. That was one of the reasons for Martin's success against him.

By the time the teams met again in the 2010-11 summer, Smith had worked enough with Cook to have closed the gap. But it didn't entirely solve the problem.

In Durban, he reacted quickly enough to the one that came into him by bringing the bat across the pad but got an outside edge off Zaheer in the fifth over. In Cape Town, the first delivery Zaheer got to move into Smith, at the start of his fourth over, was met with a perfect defensive push. The next one moved away and Smith could leave alone but the third one caught the South African captain in two minds. Without being sure if the ball was moving away or in, he left the same gap to be struck on the pad and was out lbw.

Since then, Smith has been similarly troubled by Junaid Khan - who he tried to counter by moving across his offstump but was found out when the Pakistan left-armer bowled one down the leg side in the ODI series in March - and Mitchell McClenaghan, but not seriously so.

Perhaps the best indication that Smith has overcome his problem was seen in the double-hundred he scored in Dubai this October. Against a Pakistan attack led by two left-armers in Junaid and Mohammad Irfan, Smith was confident and collected a surprising number of runs straight down the ground in addition to his favoured leg-side area.

That's why Cook believes Zaheer will not be able to have the same effect on Smith in the upcoming series. "He has sorted out that issue. He has done a lot of work on picking which shots he is good at playing and which deliveries he can target while also understanding which shots he is not so good at and what to do," Cook said. "There's no chance Zaheer will be able to do the same thing this time."

So far, Smith has not had the opportunity to add his voice to the chorus surrounding what will be one of the most closely observed subplots of the series. After being released from the one-day squad Smith busied himself with organising a sixes tournament for charity.

He would have given equal, if not more, attention to Test match preparation, which was cited as the official reason he was sent home from the fifty-over squad. Smith may not admit it publicly but Zaheer, and how to overcome him, would surely have been on his mind then.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent