As Graeme Smith reminded everyone on Wednesday, he has made a career out of “looking ugly”. Yet after the 281-run defeat to Australia in the first Test last week, the South African captain will need to call on every bit of experience he has garnered from almost 11 years in the job to deal with the revitalised Mitchell Johnson.
England’s destroyer-in-chief was at it again at Centurion, taking just four balls to twice claim the scalp of the captain on his way to match figures of 12 for 127 in a crushing victory. But Smith is nothing if not a believer in his own ability, so his sniffiness over Johnson’s recent successes before the second Test, which starts in Port Elizabeth this morning, was not altogether surprising.
“I truly believe that the wicket played a big role in the success that he had. The stats, even in the Ashes, say that he picked up a lot of lower-order wickets,” Smith said, conveniently ignoring the fact that eight of Johnson’s latest haul were top-six batsmen. “It’s important not to get caught up in the hype. Obviously we know Mitchell has bowled extremely well, bowled aggressively. We all know that creates headlines, creates stories, creates fanfare.”
Smith added: “I’ve faced Mitchell a lot of times – times where he’s had the better of me and times I’ve had the better of him. One dismissal doesn’t make you lose credibility. A lot of guys have been able to perform against the fastest bowlers in the world over a long time. I’ve made a career out of looking ugly. If I can keep doing that I’ll be happy.”
The decision to insert Australia at Centurion backfired spectacularly on Smith, who is under increased scrutiny from the South African media after the baffling abandonment of their world-record run chase in the first Test against India in December. Victory in the second Test ensured they eventually won that series but former captain Shaun Pollock believes the 33-year-old must lead their recovery.
“I wouldn’t say he’s under any more pressure than usual as captain,” Pollock told The Independent, “but as an opening batsman he has the opportunity to set the tone for the match and if he can post a good score, I can see South Africa coming back.”
It is five years since the Proteas lost two successive Tests – during their last series defeat to Australia in 2008-09.
“I don’t think you can say Johnson has got into their heads but it was a brilliant performance,” Pollock added.
“We’ll have to see whether he can keep up that kind of form for the whole series like he did against England but it’s up to South Africa to come up with a plan.”