Smith hopes to 'get into a nice groove' for South Africa Tests
South Africa have caused him more trouble than any other of his regular Test opponents
Steven Smith and South Africa. Rightly or wrongly, that nation will forever be associated with Australia's best batter since Sir Donald Bradman.
But it's not just Cape Town and Sandpapergate that link Smith and South Africa together. It is no secret that South Africa have caused Australia's batting savant more trouble than any other of his regular Test opponents.
Bangladesh aside, who Smith has only faced twice, he averages 49 or more against all other Test opponents bar South Africa. To be fair to Smith, his average of 41.53 against South Africa would be the envy of most Test batters. Mark Waugh is lionised in Australia as a modern great and his career average was 41.81.
But for Smith, against the backdrop of his astonishing current career mark of 60.98, his record of just one century and three half-centuries in 17 innings against South Africa is a thorn in his side. The prospect of facing them again in a three-Test series for the first time since the infamous 2018 saga has him eager to prove a point in more ways than one.
"I'm really excited," Smith said following Australia's series victory over West Indies in Adelaide. "South Africa is probably the one team, they've bowled pretty well to me in the past, my record is probably not quite as good against them as some of the others.
"Some of the bowlers I'll come up against, I've come up against previously. I'm really looking forward to the series like everyone else. Hopefully, I can get into a nice groove."
He is already in a nice groove. Smith believes he is batting the best he has since 2014 having returned to a more side-on method that incidentally yielded his lone Test century against South Africa in Centurion in 2014.
He is fresh off feasting on West Indies in Perth where he scored 220 runs without being dismissed. But he is not resting on his laurels. He was frustrated at missing out on the fun in Adelaide, registering a rare duck in the first innings which stood as a shocking outlier on Australia's scorecard wedged between Marnus Labuschagne's 163 and Travis Head's 175.
Such is Smith's thirst for batting and his thirst for improvement, prior to the fourth and final day in Adelaide with Australia's two batting innings already completed in the game, Smith was in the nets facing throwdowns with red balls from the coaching staff to prepare for the first Test in Brisbane in six days' time.
"I feel in a good place, batting nicely, feel in good rhythm and I'm looking forward to it," Smith said. "Had a hit against the red ball this morning in preparation, just changing from the pink, so the focus can now completely go to South Africa and I can't wait."
He knows too that South Africa are a step up from what he has just been facing. West Indies quick Alzarri Joseph bowled a couple of brisk and decent spells in the two-Test series, nudging 140kph, but Smith largely avoided them. Instead, he had gorged on the mostly sub-130kph offerings from Kemar Roach, Jayden Seales, Jason Holder and Kyle Mayers, as well as the less-than-threatening offspin of Roston Chase and Kraigg Brathwaite.
Kagiso Rabada and Keshav Maharaj will be waiting for Smith in Brisbane, having dismissed him in Tests three times each. Dean Elgar has oddly picked him up twice too. But Anrich Nortje, Marco Jansen and Lungi Ngidi won't be shy to test Smith's revamped method out in the way that New Zealand's Neil Wagner and England's Mark Wood had caused him to review his technique across recent summers.
"You play what's in front of you," Smith said. "Sometimes when you are facing faster bowlers it can be easier to score and things like that than if you're facing someone bowling 130kph and nibbling them around.
"That's the key to any attack, having that kind of variety so you're never getting into a rhythm as a batter. I think South Africa provide that; they have Nortje bowling 150kph, Rabada 140-150, then a left-armer in Jansen, and a good spinner in Maharaj. It will be a good challenge for our batters and hopefully, we can continue the way we've started the summer."
Smith will relish the challenge on the field. As difficult a prospect as South Africa's attack is, it will always be more welcome than the constant revisiting of the events of Cape Town in 2018. They are inescapable for him, particularly having just stood in as captain against West Indies in the week David Warner created headlines even while attempting to avoid reopening old wounds.
"The cricket we've played over the last four-and-half years, we've played the right way, we've been hard and played in the right spirit," Smith said. "For us nothing changes, we are just going to continue to go about our business and hopefully continue playing good, entertaining cricket."
Smith and South Africa aren't a match made in heaven, but they remain a promoter's dream.
Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo