Smith takes test match by the throat
THE boxer Brian Mitchell talked about sensing weakness in his opponents when they started breathing through the mouth rather than the nose. Graeme Smith, the Proteas skipper, is similarly ruthless when it comes to sensing blood.
Show Smith a chink of light and in fourth-innings situations he's likely to kick down the door - as he did against Australia in the eight-wicket win in the first test at Newlands on Friday.
At Wednesday's toss (won by South Africa) HD Ackerman made the point on TV that you didn't necessarily want to be batting last. In the end, it didn't matter because once Smith had the winning target in his sights, he rolled to his goal like a runaway lawn mower. Hitting the winning runs - a Smith-like hurdle through mid-wicket - must have made his heart soar.
He hasn't been the country's most popular sportsman in the last six months and he suggested on Friday it hadn't been one-way traffic either. Things people have said - he didn't elaborate - have clearly hurt him.
You feel for Smith, who tends to divide people more than bring them together. There were the disappointments of the World Cup, his rather fudgy apology for not returning with the team and his injuries and problems with form.
All that was put aside on Friday - at least temporarily. He began to find some semblance of form in the Port Elizabeth ODI against Australia. In that 50 he was hitting the ball beautifully through extra-cover and he said this week in practice he sensed then he was on the road to something better. He carried on the good work on Thursday night here, punching powerfully down the ground as he biffed a couple of straight drives that bisected mid-off and the bowler.
"Whenever I'm hitting the ball up the ground it's always a good sign for me," he said. "I thought my front foot was moving well today, often that's a sign for me," he said on Friday night after his unbeaten 101.
Smith has a remarkable record in fourth-innings chases. He averages 85 in successful fourth-innings chases for the Proteas and 57 in such chases throughout. He's also scored 1000 runs in successful fourth-innings chases, with four centuries within those 1000 runs, the last of which came just after lunch on Friday.
Smith was less eye-catching than partner Hashim Amla on Friday, but was also less streaky. He went about his business with a dogged calmness that suggested a home win was never in doubt.
It must be difficult to bowl to Smith when he's in such belligerent mood. He has the priceless habit of tilting the game in his direction. It must make bowling to him a harrowing experience. "We realised that when Nathan Lyon batted [in the Australian second innings] that it got easier to bat after about 15 overs," said Smith on Friday.
He made the similar point that although the Australians bowled well in the first hour of Friday's play, he and Amla knew it was simply a case of "soaking it up". That they did.
As so often happens in these situations, batting became progressively easier. Smith had seen to that. He almost single-handedly helped his team climb what might, in different circumstances, have been a more treacherous peak.
Indeed, Amla, unusually unconvincing this season, found courage from batting with Smith. His captain's desire to put the Proteas 1-0 up meant he could play with the brio and freedom he is capable of when at his scintillating best. Amla was severe on Lyon and ruthless on Mitchell Johnson. It came as much from Smith's stabilising influence as it did from his own resolve to end the match.
In all of this, it is easy to forget Smith has a lighter side. After everyone had gone home on Friday night, he, Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis, his senior lieutenants, walked across a deserted Newlands. In their green-and-gold tracksuits, they were happy, slightly bedraggled, and a little worse for wear.
Boucher was carrying two bottles of wine; Kallis a glass of Coke and something, it was too difficult to tell from a distance. Smith was carrying a big Protea and waving it to anyone who would look. It seemed appropriate under the circumstances.