Smith's ODI career seemingly on the wane
Graeme Smith's ODI career could be over.
The Test captain was left out of South Africa's XI for the first one-dayer against India in Johannesburg - the first time Smith had been overlooked for strategic reasons rather than injury since relinquishing the 50-overs captaincy after the 2011 World Cup - and the move could signal the end of Smith in coloured clothing.
Smith has not scored an ODI half-century in eight innings, all against Pakistan. His last contribution of significance came in January's home series against New Zealand, when he scored 116 in the only match South Africa won. Before that series, in which Smith also scored a half-century, he had scored one hundred and two fifties in 10 innings in 2012, and there were constant questions over whether he merited a place in the one-day team.
De Villiers admitted that this time, against India, there "just wasn't a spot open" for Smith, in what is the clearest indication yet that patchy form and niggles may catching up with the left-hander, who has been more out of than in South Africa's ODI team recently. Smith missed the Champions Trophy and South Africa's limited-overs tour to Sri Lanka this year with injury, which unsettled a team that was also missing Jacques Kallis.
South Africa went through a painful process of trying to find an opening combination that could match the Smith-Hashim Amla partnership, which averages 41.40 in 48 innings, but could not. Colin Ingram and Hashim Amla managed two half-century stands in four attempts at the Champions Trophy but when Amla was injured for the early stages of the Sri Lanka tour, Ingram unravelled.
Ingram partnered Alviro Petersen for a game without success, then Quinton de Kock was used with Petersen, and then Amla joined de Kock. These two showed promise as a pair, with a stand of 87 in the UAE, but it was still considered a given that when both Smith and Amla were available again, they would be reunited to provide stability.
They played the first two ODIs against Pakistan at home together, and scored 12 and 9. Smith was unavailable for the third game because of the passing of his grandmother, so de Kock was promoted up the order - he was at No. 3 when Smith and Amla opened - to rejoin Amla. They posted 39.
So when it came to a green-top in Johannesburg for the opening game of a series against India, South Africa were faced with a tough choice. They wanted to play the extra seamer so they had to leave a batsman out and that batsman was Smith. "I wanted to play an extra bowler so there just wasn't a space open for him," de Villiers explained.
Statistical evidence in favour of the Amla-de Kock pairing is based on too small a sample for it to top the Amla-Smith pairing, but the numbers are pointing in the right direction. In eight innings as openers, Amla and de Kock have posted 453 runs at 50.33, with one century and two fifty-stands, including South Africa's first opening partnership of more than 100 runs since 2010. More than the numbers, it's the way Amla and de Kock combine that has left the team management keen for them to bat together - as they also do so in T20s.
"There's experience of Hash and the elegance, and then the no-fear attitude of Quinny," de Villiers said. He did, however, leave the door open for Smith, but only in the opening role. "I can't see Graeme batting anywhere else," he said. "He knows I am a captain that is very fond of playing seven frontline batsmen, but tonight we felt an extra seam bowler could be handy."
Andrew Hudson, South Africa's convener selectors, has also mentioned the seven-batsman formula but that would mean allrounder Ryan McLaren being left out. After his performances this year - McLaren is the team's third highest wicket-taker in 2013 despite not playing in all games and has the ability to lengthen the lower middle-order - it would seem a harsh decision.
A return for Smith would also mean de Kock would be shifted out of position, to No. 3. "Quinny has got two kinds of games," de Villiers explained. "He has the ability to accelerate and then pull back like you saw [against India]. I feel he can adapt a bit better than others to No. 3."
Still, for that to happen, Smith will have to find one-day form and that will be difficult for him. He plays very little domestic cricket. He has played in only one List A game since December 2011, for Surrey against Hampshire, and that will remain so until he heads back to the county circuit because South Africa's domestic one-day competition is over.
The Twenty20s event is yet to be played and Smith, along with all the other national players, will be available for their franchises for most of that tournament. Even if Smith excels in it, the question will remain over whether he wants to play limited-overs cricket.
At 32, retirement should be and is a distant thought for Smith but focusing on Tests only - and staying injury-free to honour his deal with Surrey - is not. He does not feature in South Africa's T20 squad - he last played in October 2011 - but it does not seem to be a decision he made himself.
When South Africa crashed out of the 2012 World T20 in Sri Lanka, again with the batting being their Achilles' Heel, many supporters asked Smith if he had retired from the shortest format. He confirmed he had not and was "available to play all forms of the game". He still is, but whether he gets picked is a different question.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent