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Sat Apr 19 20:10:02 SAST 2014

Smith faces career-defining series

Tristan Holme, TEAMtalk Media | 17 July, 2012 12:320 Comments
Somerset v South Africa
South Africa's captain Graeme Smith readies himself during a tour match against Somerset on July 9, 2012 in Taunton, England
Image by: Ben Hoskins / Getty Images

This time last year, the thought of walking down the street haunted Graeme Smith. South Africa had bombed out of another World Cup, and after Smith went to Ireland instead of returning home with the rest of the squad, his popularity had plummeted.

The 31-year-old has never enjoyed universal approval from South Africa's supporters, but this was a new low.

"After the World Cup it was a very tough time for me. I lost a lot of self-confidence and self-esteem," he tells Cricket365. "I used to walk down the streets just wondering, 'Okay, who's going to say something now?' That's the kind of space that I was in."

Such a deep injury to the psyche inevitably took its toll on Smith's game when the season began last October, and it took an entire season before he began to feel himself again.

Aside from an unbeaten century to see South Africa home in a madcap test against Australia in Cape Town, Smith endured a poor run of form in the five-day game. At the same time, having given up the limited-overs captaincies, he faced questions over his place in the team. It took until the final match of the home season for him to find an answer, when a typically belligerent century changed a few perceptions.

"I think my cricket up until the New Zealand tour was showing that I was lacking a bit of self-confidence, and it probably showed how I felt about myself," he says.

"I'm just glad that I was able to build back from that from a personal perspective. Obviously the people around you are a crucial factor in that - your close friends, my family, my wife and your team-mates. They play a big role in getting you back to where you need to be."

That Smith has become comfortable in his own skin once more is borne out by his willingness to speak openly about the issue. Although he understands where the antipathy towards him might stem from, he also accepts that it will take time to win over the haters.

"I think one of the things I've understood in many ways is that I took over as a 22-year-old and that I was going to make, and did make, a lot of mistakes. That was part and parcel of growing up as a captain. I understand that some of those mistakes have caused some of the perceptions. Also because I've captained for eight or nine years, I feel like I've always been judged on the team's results rather than my batting or personality.

"I kind of understand it but I'm also working towards the opportunity [to change that]. I think it's been a process over the last three to four years but in particular the last year. Hopefully people will give me a chance to sort of come through and then to see the type of personality that I am, and hopefully by the time I've finished playing cricket, people will understand me."

For the moment Smith has found a sense of inner peace, and he has been energised by events in his life. South Africa are on a quest to dislodge England as the top-ranked test side in the world, while Smith will reach a number of landmarks during the tour.

At The Oval this week he will play in his 100th test, and health and injury permitting, the third test will see him break Allan Border's record of 93 test matches as captain. However, none of this will top the experience of becoming a father for the first time.

"That is the highlight of my life," he admits. "I'm obviously going to be praying that my wife can hang on until after the first test match so that I can get back for the birth. It's going to be a touch nerve-wracking, but my wife and I have been saying to each other that there's just so much to look forward to. I've worked hard for this tour. I feel like I've put a lot in behind the scenes for what's to come and obviously with the child coming it's a whole new experience that I'm very excited about."

Tours to England have tended to come at key points in Smith's career. In 2003 he arrived as a raw 22-year-old captain and made a big impression with his brash character and two big double-centuries. Five years later he enjoyed one his finest moments to date when he took South Africa to their first series victory in England since readmission with a gutsy 154 not out.

There is a distinct feeling that this tour could come to define Smith's career, which has too often seen South Africa challenge for the top rankings but ultimately fall short - a brief period in 2008-09 excepted.

Given the importance of the contest, it's a good thing that Smith has what he believes is the best squad he's led on an England tour.

"From our team's perspective it's very similar to 2008, but I think that we were just sort of beginning that building process and now everybody is a lot further down the road in terms of experience and achievements. This is not a first for a lot of us but it's something that we would really like to achieve again because we know how wonderful the feeling was to win in 2008.

"Obviously there are one or two additions and someone like Morne Morkel is far more experienced and understands his game a lot more than he did in 2008. He's someone that I look forward to watching. Imran Tahir is a new addition and he's got good experience in English conditions and hopefully he''ll play a role. From the batting perspective even our guys who haven't toured England before have experience there - Jacques Rudolph has spent a lot of time in county cricket, as has Alviro Petersen."

Nevertheless Smith is under no illusions about the challenge facing the Proteas.

"England are a very good team at the moment, but I think in their own conditions they're an excellent team. They know what is required at each ground that they play on, and I think the crowd and the weather play a big part in that. The support that they receive at home and the way the fans get behind them is definitely a motivated factor for their team - there have been a number of instances in my past tours where I've felt the crowd influence the bowler and give him an extra couple of kilometres, or a bit more energy in his spell.

"And now the England team is a very professional, well-run team. You know that Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss won't leave a stone unturned - you expect them to be well-planned, well-prepared and well thought-out. It should be a great series."

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