Proteas ready to bloom in England

Graeme Smith will become the most capped captain of all time if he stays fit and plays all three Tests against England. (Getty)

Graeme Smith will become the most capped captain of all time if he stays fit and plays all three Tests against England. (Getty)

Graeme Smith became the sixth South African to earn 100 Test caps when he led the Proteas in the first Test against England at the Oval in London.

Not only have none of his five predecessors done so carrying as much responsibility, but only one man in the history of the game has captained more.

If Smith stays fit and plays all three Tests, he will pass Australian Allan Border’s record of 93 to become the most capped captain of all time.

“Nine years is a long time in anyone’s career, but especially as captain,” Smith said before the Test. “When I think back to 2003, it feels, in some ways, as if it was a different career – almost a different lifetime. I was a very young man and I’ve made many mistakes along the way.

“I’m no different from anyone else in wishing I’d known some of the things at 21 that I do at 31, but I have no regrets and I’ve given everything to the job.
It’s been an honour and one that I’m still happy to carry on doing – as long as I can add value to the team and people want me around.”

Like presidents of countries and directors of large companies, only those who have done the job know how relentless the demands are and how difficult it can be to concentrate on core business. Jacques Kallis, the most capped Protea of all with his 153rd on Thursday (ahead of Mark Boucher’s 147, Shaun Pollock’s 108, Gary Kirsten’s 101 and Makhaya Ntini’s 101) has had a taste of the job as a fill-in.

“I’m glad I’ve done it – it’s an honour to captain your country and I’m proud of that,” Kallis said. “But I could never have done it for a series, let alone a year – or nine! It is a phenomenal effort. Many people have no idea of how much the role demands from you. There is very rarely a break and Graeme has coped incredibly well and has kept the respect of all the players for all those years.”

The vast majority of English pundits have formed a caucus of opinion that South Africa could not possibly have been adequately prepared for such an important series on the back of just five days of warm-up cricket, all of which were affected by rain.

Former England captain Michael Vaughan led the way with a strongly worded article in which he claimed that the tourists “must be worried about their lack of preparation” and said there was “no doubt” that Smith’s men would be “under-cooked” by the time of  the first Test.

But coach Kirsten and captain Smith found an expected advocate of their belief that the best and most important preparation for Test cricket takes place in the head, not in the nets. Whereas all and sundry were following Vaughan’s line of thinking without question, England captain Andrew Strauss said he understood exactly what his opposition meant.

“I don’t know what their preparation has been like, but, certainly from my point of view, when we’re away on tour the most important thing is that mentally you’re in the right frame of mind,” Strauss said earlier this week. “What you do on the pitch in preparation is almost secondary to whether you’re able to get yourself focused sufficiently for that first Test match. They will be the only people who will know whether that is the case or not.”

Sense of contentment
Both Kirsten and Smith were adamant during the build-up to the first Test that things had gone according to plan, despite the incessantly miserable weather. “You can only prepare for the intensity of Test cricket by playing it. I never enjoyed ‘soft’ warm-up matches and most of the senior players feel the same way. If anything, they can take the edge off your game before a really hard match or series,” Kirsten said.

“In some ways the build-up has felt quite long, but we are at the point we want to be and we are as ready as we can be,” Smith said. “There is a strong sense of contentment and clarity in the squad, which has allowed everyone to prepare themselves mentally for a long period before the Test.”

“Whatever happens at the Oval,” said Kirsten, “there will be no comments or complaints from us about preparation.”

If South Africa win the series, they will take England’s number-one ranking. Smith does not want to jinx the team, but it is a prospect that clearly excites him. A lot.

“We got there very briefly four years ago and couldn’t hang on to it. This is a second chance. Just like four years ago, we face Australia away five months after England away. We won both back then. It’ll be hard to do it again – as hard as any challenge in the game. But the rewards would be amazing if we can do it.”

Kallis tackles his deepest fear in the Alps
The purpose of the Proteas’ three-day camp in the Swiss Alps ­en route to England has been tricky to describe – or understand.

It had several levels. The most basic was fun and bonding between teammates. The players and management were allowed to explore whatever other benefits came from the time spent with ­legendary explorer Mike Horn.

Jacques Kallis was inspired, for whatever reason, to tackle a problem that has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember: a profound fear of heights.

When the squad yomped up the side of a 3 000m glacier, nobody expected Kallis to join them. Yet there he was. Struggling and uncomfortable, but there.

He was unable to walk on the most difficult paths, carved by the hooves of mountain goats in the summer months, but he confounded everyone – mostly himself – by tackling an extreme descent that required leaping up to 9m into glacial pools before continuing on foot. Tremendous fun and a welcome adrenaline rush for his teammates, it was hell for the world’s greatest all-rounder. But he did it. Voluntarily.

Kallis has the worst batting record of his career in England, with an average of just under 30 and only one century in 12 Tests. He does not know why. But he is not defensive or prickly about the record. He would dearly like to put it right, but is not “desperate” to do so.

He said before the series in 2008 that he would happily exchange a successful batting series for a team win. And that is what happened.

He said the same again just three days ago and he seemed to mean it. But if he is willing to tackle a problem that has troubled him since he was a young boy, the signs are that he is not merely allowing events to take their natural course in England without doing all he can to make sure they go his way. – Neil Manthorp