Long before Graeme Smith played against England he answered to the nickname Biff. The reason appears to have been lost in the mists of time, but had it never been coined it would have been swiftly applied. It fits perfectly. From virtually the start of his Test career, Biff has spent most of his time biffing these opponents on behalf of South Africa. On the evidence of this brilliantly hard-nosed performance he is not yet of a mind to relent.
In his 100th Test, Smith made his 25th hundred, his seventh against England, his fifth in this country and now has a Test average here of 75.87. It is Bradmanesque, and indeed only Don Bradman himself has a higher one.
Everything that Smith did yesterday had in mind the objective of making South Africa the No 1 Test side in the world, the prize that awaits the winners of this series. And by the close of the third day in the First Test that fiercely held ambition was a little step closer.
Smith and his side were remorseless. They lost only one wicket throughout 98 overs. To general astonishment it was that of Smith but at 403 for 2, 18 ahead, they are not in imminent danger of defeat. Hashim Amla, with whom Smith shared a second-wicket partnership of 259, was unbeaten on 183 and Jacques Kallis had progressed seamlessly to 82 in an unbroken third-wicket stand of 143.
Smith's innings was the cornerstone. It was a contradictory model of calculating self-denial and brutal assault, and if it was never remotely pretty its effectiveness was immense. "I don't think it's sunk in yet," he said. "It's surreal, a lot of thoughts and emotions were going through my head. A hundred Tests is a terrific achievement, but to reach a milestone like this is the cherry on the top."
His alliance with Amla was South Africa's most productive at a ground where they have never won. The two innings were starkly contrasting, Smith, muscular and ferocious in attack, thumped the ball, Amla, lithe and graceful, caressed it. But in composure and determination they were equals. They had a plan to which they stuck and the upshot was domination. Smith fell to Tim Bresnan, bowled via an inside edge, pad and boot. Unless there are a few more where that came from it may not be enough to save Bresnan. The clamour for the Middlesex fast bowler Steve Finn to replace him will only become louder and will reach deafening proportions if England go 1-0 down in the series with two to play.
South Africa may have to bat so deep into the fourth day to establish a large enough lead that England will have to occupy the crease for only four sessions. Given their status as the world's top Test side, the desire to keep it and the benign, slow nature of the pitch this should be well within their compass. But batting for survival can have a dangerous effect.
There was nothing in the pitch or the overhead conditions for England's bowlers, but still this was a dreadful advertisement for them as the most incisive attack on the planet. Since Tino Best came out to bat at Edgbaston last month with West Indies at 283 for 9, England have taken three wickets while their opponents have scored 546.
Smith, as ever, was unafraid to fetch the ball from outside off and 97 of his runs were scored on the leg side. When he is set it makes him difficult to bowl to. Amla batted outside off stump to Graeme Swann's off-spin, making a leg-before verdict highly unlikely, and though his runs were evenly spread, he never missed a chance to clip into the on side.
There was a period in the enthralling first hour when Swann seemed to be eroding Smith's will, but it never came to fruition. It rarely does. There were a few hesitant nudges and prods and an lbw appeal was turned down which would have stood if given and then reviewed.
But Biff was completely unbothered. He did not care a jot about the scoring of runs. Amla was barely less inert and together they were intent on drawing England's sting. Eventually, Smith reached his fifty. It had taken 160 balls; to call it laborious would be to invest it with an entertainment value it did not possess.
And then dramatically he changed his approach. In the next 41 balls before lunch he had his century, crushing 10 fours, most of them through midwicket. In that period he was unstoppable.
He is the seventh player to have scored a hundred in his 100th Test match and if he does not set the pulse racing like some of the others – Colin Cowdrey, Javed Miandad, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Ricky Ponting – his interventions in Test matches are invariably meaningful. South Africa have never lost a Test match in which he has scored a century and have won 16 of them.
Tomorrow night Smith will fly home for a few days to be with his wife, the Irish singer Morgan Deane, for the birth of their first child. "She has been very supportive and I hope everything will go smoothly," Smith added. It will be a life-changing event, of course, but England should not bank on it weakening his resolve. Not one bit.
The Oval scoreboard
England won toss
England: First innings 385 (A N Cook 115, I J L Trott 71, M J Prior 60; M Morkel 4-72)
South Africa: First innings (Overnight: 86-1)
*G C Smith b Bresnan 131/0/20/273
A N Petersen lbw Anderson 0/0/0/8
H M Amla not out 183/22/0/369
J H Kallis not out 82/10/0/161
Extras (b1, lb4, w1, nb1) 7
Total (for 2, 135 overs) 403
Fall 1-1, 2-260.
To bat †A B de Villiers, J A Rudolph, V D Philander, D W Steyn, M Morkel, Imran Tahir.
Bowling Anderson 29-6-90-1; Broad 26-4-87-0; Swann 42-10-99-0; Bresnan 24-2-77-1; Bopara 9-1-29-0; Pietersen 3-0-13-0; Trott 2-0-3-0.
Umpires Asad Rauf (Pak) and S J Davies (Aus).
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- Graeme Swann
- Michael Vaughan
- Nasser Hussain
- Ricky Ponting
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