Success is a valid expectation for Graeme Smith
Despite being pitted against his former coach, Proteas captain Graeme Smith is in a bullish mood, writes Neil Manthorp.
No scale has yet been invented to measure the irony of Mickey Arthur lining up as Australian coach against Graeme Smith at the "Gabba" in Brisbane on November 9. The symbolism of this series for South African cricket is immense – and it was all predicted by a jubilant Arthur in the aftermath of the country's first series victory in 100 years of trying four years ago.
"This will change the way cricket is played and perceived in South Africa for a very long time, probably for the next 100 years," Arthur said in Melbourne four years ago when he was still coaching the Proteas.
"It's not only that South Africa has won here for the first time, but [also] the way we have fought back from seemingly impossible situations. Future generations will not only know that it is possible to win in Australia, but that it is possible from any situation."
How extraordinary that he should now find himself trying to erase that learning and extinguish those experiences. Even over the course of three years, it seems a huge task for a man who was always among the most committed of South Africans.
"I will always cherish those memories and be grateful for the five years I spent as coach of the Proteas, but I have a new life now, not just a new job, and I'm just as committed to this one as I was to the first one," Arthur said recently. "I know that the success we had four years ago will make my job harder this time around, but I will gain an equal sense of achievement and satisfaction if I can win the series with Australia." The words are said with typical conviction, but are just a little harder to believe than those spoken at the beginning of 2009.
Graeme Smith remembers all too well the euphoria of that ground-breaking series win and has forgotten nothing of the long-term significance that he discussed with his coach afterwards.
There will be a lot of emotion and sentiment used to promote the series and no doubt there will be mention made of Smith's famous "broken hand" innings in Sydney.
"England was a bit the same, with me playing my 100th Test match and becoming the most capped captain [of all time]. That was quite hard to digest, to be honest. The challenge now for us as a team is to regroup after the T20 World Cup and the Champions League – a lot has happened between the last Test series [and now] and we have a lot of realigning to do, and refocusing. Fortunately, that is something Gary [Kirsten, the Proteas coach] is very good at doing and we are confident that we can do that," said Smith.
"There was a huge amount of speculation that we were 'undercooked' before the England series, because we only had two warm-up games and they were both pretty much washed out. Gary's belief, and it is shared by all the senior players, is that preparation is 90% mental in international cricket. There aren't many members of our squad who need physical preparation."
South African bowling coach Allan Donald rated the current bowling attack, led by Dale Steyn, as the best South Africa has had since its readmission. In fact, he went further: "This is as good as it gets." If Australian eyebrows were raised, they were lowered into a frown just hours later when Michael Hussey, starting his 19th season of first-class cricket, agreed it was the best attack he had ever faced.
"If you believe what you read in the press," said Smith with a telling grin, "then it's certainly going to be a bit fiery, with pace and bounce on offer to the quicks. Being early season, too, there should be some green grass around. I can understand Australia backing their pace attack.
"They have experience in [Peter] Siddle and [Ben] Hilfenhaus, and then youngsters like [James] Pattinson, [Mitchell] Starc and [Pat] Cummins to supplement. You can't always prepare the conditions you want, but if they do go for fast, seaming pitches, that will also favour Steyn, [Morné] Morkel and [Vernon] Philander. And if it turns, then I'm certainly happy to have Imran Tahir in my team," Smith said.
As for his opposite number, Australian captain Michael Clarke, Smith said: "It's not often I've been to Australia and been the more experienced of the two captains. Hopefully I can use some of that experience to our benefit on the tour. He's brought in a style of play that's important to him and it has paid off, certainly in the West Indies when he changed a few thought patterns with his declarations. But most importantly, he's batted well with the captaincy, which is at least half the challenge under the pressure of captaincy.
"Our job will be to maximise that pressure while he's captain. I've played all my international cricket against Michael and we have a good relationship, but if we can place him under as much pressure as possible it will obviously benefit the team. He is a well-prepared man and he will have a lot of ideas and strategies for us, along with Mickey. I'm expecting a boisterous approach from Michael and it'll be interesting."
Donald Bradman's great, unbeaten Australian team of 1948 were labelled the "Invincibles". Steve Waugh's prickly sledgers, later inherited by Ponting, were dubbed the "Unloveables". That did not go unnoticed four years ago, although Smith expects a very different scenario now.
"I was told on many occasions by Australians how good it was to see their team challenged and knocked off their pedestal. I fully expect to see all those people now cheering for the team to be reinstated there. That's one of the reasons it will be so hard to succeed. We will be up against the whole of Australia," he said.
"We are under no illusions, but to go to Australia for the first time with an expectation, rather just a hope of success from our own supporters, is something I am very proud of. It is something the whole team can be proud of. And if people want to call us 'favourites' as the number one ranked team, then we can be proud of that, too."