The new England captain, Michael Vaughan, is 28 and confronting the trickiest phase of a hitherto brilliant and uncomplicated career. He is doing it with softly uttered avowals that there is indeed a touch of steel behind a smile which has been branded as a sign of irredeemable softness by the flint-tough old Yorkshireman and Ashes-winning predecessor Ray Illingworth.
Graeme Smith, Vaughan's South African counterpart, is 22 going on 50. He is about as soft as an outcrop of his native Drakensberg mountains. He shrugs when he is reminded that his astonishing flood of runs in the first and second Tests - 277 and 85 at Edgbaston and 259 at Lord's - has only once been bettered, and then by the greatest batsman who ever lived, and he says, "It's very satisfying to be up there with Don Bradman, but I have lot more to do this summer." Arrogant? Some suggest this, but a more generous, and maybe accurate, interpretation might be that they are simply the words of an old warrior soul.
Smith, after all, talked his way into the South African captaincy when the interviewing selectors asked what he was prepared to sacrifice. "My youth," he said, and from the vast perspective of a few months in the job he reflected, "I haven't had a lot of things young guys enjoy. I haven't had a student youth. But I'm on the path I want to go."
First Vaughan, then Smith held court in the Trent Bridge Long Room on the eve of today's Third Test - one which Vaughan, wounded by crushing defeat at Lord's in his first Test as captain, desperately needs to win if he is to avoid the further charge that his regime is virtually still-born.
The contrast was fascinating, Vaughan, understandably, was a little defensive. Smith was bullish but crisply logical in everything he said. Even the most jaded cricket taste buds had to come alive.
Said Vaughan: "We're in a difficult situation, but we are very well aware that South African came here five years ago one up - and then England beat them down and won the series." That had much to do, unforgettably, with the belligerence of Mike Atherton in the face of the great Allan Donald. Can Vaughan, at this early stage of his captaincy, muster similar defiance?
"I'll do it my way," he said, a small version of that controversial smile playing on his lips. "People over the last few days have talked about me maybe being too soft, but I'm telling you all, 'I ain't soft'.
"I'll continue to do it my way, and that means smiling on the pitch, just being relaxed, I'll do it. I will not be soft. I've played a lot of international cricket and scored runs against tough opponents. That means I can't be soft. But I am calm. There are times in Test cricket when players get tense and and if I'm relaxed maybe I can do something about it."
Smith was sharply less speculative about his own possibilities as captain. "We start fresh tomorrow, fresh from the batting side, fresh from the bowling side, fresh as a team - we realise we've played some great cricket in the first two games but it's so important we re-focus ourselves and are well prepared. It's important to remember that there are three Tests to go, and that if we reproduce some more of the cricket we have played so far we shouldn't have a problem.
"I felt tired after my big score at Lord's. Once the adrenalin stopped pumping and the mind quietened down, I hit a bit of a low. So I took a little rest and got my body up again - and my mind. It's a big mental game for me individually as a batter working myself up to another big score. I've told the team that we have to be prepared - and humble."
Humility is fine, of course, but it has it limits and in conversations with one of his mentors, the former South African captain Kepler Wessels, and Atherton, he has had confirmed his belief that at the crease the burden of captaincy has to be put on one side. He has to be not a captain but an obsessed batsman in the middle of one of the two hottest streaks that Test cricket has ever known.
"I'm aware," said Smith, "that scoring another double century would be huge and from my point of view I'd take it tomorrow if I could, but I have to remember I'm facing a fresh wicket and a fresh bowling attack, and it's a wicket that I'm told isn't playing as well as it used to, so there is going to be a lot in the way. I've just got to make sure I give myself my best chance. To be honest, I'm feeling pretty good at the moment.
"Both Kepler and Mike said that when you're batting the best your team can get out of you as a captain is that you concentrate to the maximum as a batsman; then, when that is over, you have your other duties." Before being made captain, Smith had played just eight Test matches, but only heaven knows how many he had battled out in his head. Listening to him the other day, one observer recalled a line of the First World war poet Siegfried Sassoon: "When I was 22," wrote the poet, "I thought I was inexistinguishable." Yesterday Graeme Smith flooded Trent Bridge with a similar sense. Michael Vaughan? He simply said that he wasn't a softie - and had runs against Australia to prove it.
It is, you may have gathered, shaping up as some Test - of cricket and two young men who, all England must hope, are maybe not as far apart as they might seem.Reuse content