Graeme Smith is back in Australia and this time he's leading a determined South Africa and not a motley World XI
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It's funny how the media works, and Graeme Smith probably thinks the same. Not the people, just the 'system'. Internet sites, newspapers and radio stations need to generate news to stay in business, of course, but they wouldn't stay in business if people weren't interested in reading the news.
Most cricketers and other sportsmen don't have the time or inclination to read news or 'comment' outside their immediate sphere of interest so when it is presented to them at a later date, it appears, to all intents and purposes, as fresh.
Almost three months ago Smith said that England's Ashes triumph had contributed towards Australia losing their "aura of invincibility". Nobody outside of Australia took much notice at the time because they were too busy nodding in sage agreement at what appeared to be harmless statement of the obvious. But when the comments were presented to Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath once South Africa arrived in Perth, they were taken as a stinging, inciteful and personal afront by the great bowlers. And they wasted no time in hitting back with comments about Smith's big mouth and arrogant attitude. Actually, Smith has said almost nothing to contribute towards the 'war of words' which made the ICC so nervous they saw fit to issue a bizarre warning about players adhering to the 'spirit of the game'.
Fortunately, not everybody has taken the pre-series hype at face value. And anyway, hype is a good thing. It creates interest, sells tickets and keeps the game alive and well. But at least one former South African player, who has seen it all before, has seen it for what it really is. "The truth is I don't think Graeme has said very much at all since arriving in Australia. The comments that Shane and Glenn are referring to were made weeks, even months ago by Graeme and nobody even noticed back then," said an amused Gary Kirsten from Cape Town. "The media 'machine' in Australia loves a bone to chew on and they don't let go. But Graeme hasn't risen to the bait and that's a very good sign. He must just keep quiet and let his cricket do the talking," Kirsten said. "When I was still playing we knew that Steve Waugh thrived on a chirp, he loved the opposition having a word or two with him. We learnt a bit too late that we were better off saying nothing to him."
Not that Smith hasn't been outspoken in the past, of course. Like Waugh he prefers his cricket to played in a heated environment and he's not complaining now that he will face Australia - notably Warne and McGrath - in an environment that another former Protea, Allan Donald, describes as "potentially white hot." "Graeme is a very passionate and occasionally outspoken guy, and he can handle himself fine, but my concern is for the rest of the team," says Donald. "There are some pretty young guys in the team and even some of the older blokes haven't played in Australia before. Now they're feeling the heat of an Australian series and, deep down, I wonder if they're concerned that Graeme has turned the heat up even more."
Test matches at the WACA tend to be adrenalin-fuelled, fast-moving affairs with explosive moments occurring closer together than at most international venues. Once again, Smith loves that idea and when he helped create the team's new motto of 'brave cricket' back in August, it was partly with Perth - and the rest of the Australian series - in mind.
But whereas Donald fears Smith may have intimidated his own team-mates with the level of his bravado, one of his predecessors as national captain, Kepler Wessels, wonders whether it may all be part of Smith's grand plan to protect his more vulnerable men. "He has set himself up as this macho, take-it-on-the-chin kind of captain who leads from the front. He will face the sternest test of his life in Australia with that leadership style but, maybe, part of the plan is to deflect all the Aussie aggro towards himself and away from his team mates allowing them to play their normal games," Wessels said. Whilst stopping a long way short of optimism about South Africa's chances, Kirsten can't help remembering the last time Smith was the subject of such strong pre-tour hype: "The last time Graeme had so much pre-series banter was in England in 2003 and he started with back-to-back double hundreds," said Kirsten. "I'm sure he won't do that again but he does respond positively to this sort of stuff. I don't know, but the Aussies might just be distracting themselves."
Warne and McGrath, Ntini and Pollock; Hayden and Ponting, Kallis and Gibbs. They could, and probably will, have a say in the outcome of the series, but Graeme Smith may just hold the master-key. For many, many reasons besides his bat.
Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency