Starc fit as Smith seeks a game-changer

Mitchell Starc belts out an appeal for lbw Getty Images

When Steven Smith confirmed an unchanged team for Australia's Newlands bout with South Africa, his matter-of-fact tone belied that this had been a far from straightforward decision. Mitchell Starc had been hampered by a calf problem and Mitchell Marsh by a groin strain, and both had to pass bowling fitness tests in front of the selection chairman Trevor Hohns.

Much like the vagaries of the charge, hearing, ban, appeal and exoneration for Kagiso Rabada, this series has been a test for Smith in plenty of ways both expected and unforeseen. He is facing an opponent seemingly well equipped to keep him, to use the term of Faf du Plessis, "quiet", while his otherwise peerless bowling attack has failed conclusively so far to do likewise for AB de Villiers.

All the while the mental strain of a long summer and all the attendant distractions of this series have added up. By Smith's own admission, he "reads everything" in the press and on social media, and is also feeling fatigued between the ears relative to his headspace during a prolific Ashes series.

However there is one point of positivity, drawn perhaps from the experience of watching de Villiers play with such boldness and freedom irrespective of the match situation. Smith has been notably assertive with the bat in net sessions this week, and reckons himself to be hitting the ball far better than at any stage against England - with the possible exception of one evening during the Perth Test, when he raced to 92 before settling in for an epic 239.

"I feel really good, my hit today was the best for six months," Smith said. "It's probably been the opposite throughout the summer, I didn't feel I was hitting the ball that well but my mind was in a good place, maybe now my mind is not in as good a space as it was but I feel now I am hitting the ball better. It's nice to mix and match between the two, but if I get the two in the right place together then hopefully it will mean some big runs.

"You play the way you feel and all that out in the middle. I'm feeling good and fresh after week break before training, in a good place. I've had a bit of success here without scoring a hundred, scored a few runs here last time, got out to Dean Elgar again which wasn't very nice. Hopefully I can make a big impact in this game."

In observing de Villiers, Smith has seen a player very much at ease with his game and surroundings. There were the familiar words from Smith about creating an "uncomfortable environment" for the Proteas maestro, something for which he may take inspiration from the way du Plessis and his bowlers have succeeded in corralling him at the crease for Australia.

"He's played beautifully, you want to get those guys out early but its actually been nice to watch and the way he's developed his innings in the games," Smith said. "It was nice to get his wicket in the last innings, [but] he looks to have a good game plan, a lot of time, looks comfortable and hopefully we can make him very uncomfortable in this game."

As IPL teammates until recently, Smith and du Plessis know each other well, and it is clear the latter has succeeded in switching his bowlers onto their most alert mode whenever the Australian walks to the middle. "With all good players you want to make sure you make it as tough as possible for them," du Plessis said, "especially in the first hour or 15 to 20 balls.

"They are just a bit better than normal players so if you let them get going, they kickstart their innings quickly. In the previous game I think he was on one off 15 balls, so it's about making sure you are concentrating when you bowl those first 15 balls at him so he doesn't get off to that fluent start. I'm sure he'll be hungry for runs in this game as well."

Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, meanwhile, may not get as much assistance from the Newlands square in roughing up the ball for reverse swing, as it has a far lusher and more watered appearance than those of Kingsmead and St George's Park. Nathan Lyon has noted that one of Starc's less trumpeted abilities is to land the ball consistently on one side when bowling, the better to condition the ball for reverse, but that by his groundsman's estimation it will take time.

"It's going to depend on how rough we can get the rough side by hitting the wicket," he said. "You can see Starcy is a massive weapon for us when we want to get the ball reversing, the way he releases the ball he can land it on the rough side and rough it up naturally. I dare say it's still going to play a part, but I don't think it will play a part as quick as what it probably has in the past two Test matches."

Time, of course, was a factor used brilliantly by South Africa's top-order pair of Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla in Port Elizabeth, soaking up the best overs of Starc and Hazlewood to buy time for de Villiers to excel. Smith acknowledged that he may have to change things up more frequently this time around in the field.

"It depends on what's happening," Smith said. "That middle session where those guys batted really well was where the ball started reversing really big and at that time I thought it was the best option to get them out. Unfortunately we weren't able to do that, but they scored 42 runs in the session I think and got rewards later on. It certainly depends on what's happening out in the middle. Nathan's been very successful against Dean as well, so that could come into play pretty early."

Whether with the bat or the ball, Smith, Starc and Australia may well need to make things happen in Cape Town, as their mental and physical reserves start to dwindle at the end of a long summer.