Smith plays banter with a straight bat
South African captain says it is the individuals' choice whether they respond to on-field Aussie chirps or not, writes Neil Manthorp from Adelaide.
The second Test match between Australia and South Africa will be one of the most one-sided games in the history of Test cricket. It will also be the last one played on the Adelaide Oval's famous square, home for the second half of his career to Sir Donald Bradman and site of some of the great innings in Australian cricket history.
It will be one-sided, of course, because half the ground will be almost completely empty, no more than a skeleton fork-force allowed to carry on with the rebuilding work that will transform a picturesque cricket ground into an international standard multipurpose arena.
The other side will be packed to the rafters – or the ceiling fans to be more precise – as a "normal" first-day crowd of about 15000 battle it out for one of the 6500 seats that are available.
By the time England arrive in a year's time for the next Test match to be played in this city, the square will have been dug up, forever making way for the "drop-in" pitches in the centre of a stadium seating close to 50 000. As harsh as the steel, concrete and cranes are on the eyes and senses, they also serve to highlight the extreme lushness of the outfield and greenery of the square. Like an ice rink in a desert, there is an other-worldliness about the venue at the moment – as there has been about several aspects of the build-up.
Gary Kirsten's flying visit back to Cape Town for three days has still left the majority of people on both sides shaking their heads, although Graeme Smith was at pains to defend his coach.
"He has instilled a strong enough ethos into the team for us to be able to survive without him for a couple of days – and we are fortunate to have some very good management people around us. It was important for him to go and spend some time with his family and we fully support that," Smith said.
Vice-captain AB de Villiers was portrayed as confusing the situation around his place as wicketkeeper by telling a gala dinner audience of 400 on Tuesday night that his chronic back condition remained a problem and that his batting form was being affected by doing the job. In fact, he was responding – in kind – to the whimsy of the MC, who suggested his place behind the stumps was "controversial". Later, he confirmed that he really is enjoying the job and remained unaffected as a batsman.
Most peculiar to the players, however, was a suggestion that they might be divided along racial lines because the majority of those who played golf on the Gold Coast were white and the majority of those who stayed at the hotel were not.
"It was baffling, because all but one of those who either stayed in Brisbane or went to Adelaide early did so because they had friends or family to see. Those who went away for a couple of days did not. That's all there was to it," said performance director Paddy Upton.
None of this appeared to have the slightest effect on Smith, whose demeanour on the eve of the match was that of a man who has seen it all – and much more – before, which he has. The lack of jingoistic rhetoric from the South African captain was in direct contrast to his opposite number, Michael Clarke, who spoke of "the Australian way" of playing cricket that involved "a bit of banter".
"The Australian way is to play good, aggressive, positive cricket, but also understand there's a line you can't cross and everyone in that change room knows that. We'll be nice and positive with the same intent as we had in Brisbane. The guys did a fantastic job and stood up to the challenge with a bit of fire in their belly and that was really good for our game," Clarke said.
"Banter on the field is what comes with playing at the highest level. Mutual respect, play hard on the field but get along very well off the field. I'm certain you'll see plenty of what you saw in Brisbane over the next two Tests."
Smith, frankly, doesn't seem bothered either way: "They are a fine team and they must play the game the way that suits them best, as we will. Each player must figure out what works for them and if that means responding and getting involved, or ignoring it, then that's what they must do," Smith said.
He could be forgiven for having something more significant on his mind. For the past four years, ever since his team first rose to the summit of Test cricket, the number one-ranked team has come back to the chasing pack with the speed of a bungee cord. None of India, England, Australia or South Africa has come close to creating a breathing space at the top of the log.
That is precisely what would happen to the Proteas if they win this series – or even draw it. With home series against New Zealand and Pakistan this summer, Smith might even get the chance to start building the "legacy" he first dreamed of four years ago after becoming the first South African captain to win a series on Australian soil.
As Australia bids farewell to an Adelaide era, South Africa has the chance of greeting a new one of their own.