If Graeme Smith was starting the way he means to go on, England are in big trouble. South Africa's captain yesterday launched his seventh home season with the most delicate undermining of the tourists.
It demonstrated overwhelmingly in a trice how far he has come in the years since he was entrusted as a mere stripling of 22 with the leadership of his country – one with confidence, certainty and natural command but still a stripling. To make his point at one time he would have used a blunderbuss and still would have missed a barn door at five paces but here he was with a scalpel neatly making telling incisions.
On the eve of a campaign in which his team, the best in the world, will play England in 11 international matches in 10 weeks his target was Andrew Strauss. Although Strauss is the tourists' captain, he will miss the two Twenty20 internationals this weekend because he has decided it is a form of the game to which he is no longer suited.
All his form lately, not to mention the T20 form of England's other batsmen suggests that he may be extremely well fitted for it. But although England have Stuart Broad and Kevin Pietersen unavailable, and Alastair Cook left training early yesterday feeling unwell neither Strauss nor England is for changing yet. Invited to express an opinion, Smith grabbed the opportunity.
"It does surprise me," said Smith. "It's very difficult to keep chopping and changing and I think it will be difficult for Andy Flower to be working with a different captain with different views and a different outlook.
"If you're trying to create a consistent environment I guess Andrew's view is still important as he's still with the team. Who handles team meetings, who runs the show? Those are questions it's difficult for me to answer but it must be an interesting dynamic within the side. He's scoring runs, he has been successful in one-day cricket over a period of time, maybe it's something he is reassessing in his own mind but it does surprise me that on a tour like this having started so well that he's not playing a part."
It was almost possible to hear the response from the England captain which went something along the lines of: "Ouch, ouch and ouch." There is nobody smarter these days than Smith at playing the game of subtle innuendo and cunning digs, not only dressed up with the utmost sincerity but also adorned with the gravitas that comes with being an international captain of substance for so long. There was more because Smith warmed to this theme.
Smith and Strauss had a small difference of opinion during the recent Champions Trophy when the England captain (who plays the longer form of limited-overs cricket) went along with the umpires in denying his South African counterpart a runner as he pulled up with severe cramp amid an epic century.
"From Andrew's perspective there are no personal hard feelings," said Smith. "It is going to be competitive. I guess we're trying to work out at the moment how Andrew is going to go about things. As I have said in the last few weeks he has been a very quiet individual whenever we have played against him, almost stuck in the background, a clean and tidy type of character.
"I think he is trying to be a lot sterner and tougher in his ways and maybe he thinks the England environment needs that. He is much more outspoken now, I guess the captaincy does that to you so it will be interesting to see how he goes this summer." For the record, it was agreed yesterday that cramp will not be sufficient reason to have a runner in the forthcoming series.
Smith was ridiculously young when he became captain in 2003, as he would no doubt concede now. South Africa felt they had nowhere else to go. They were still coming to terms with the aftermath of the Hansie Cronje era which ended in match-fixing disgrace and the failure by the senior pro, Shaun Pollock, to step into the breach. The feeling was that, as Smith was obviously going to be captain one day, it might be as well be straightaway.
Since he was appointed, he has missed only four of South Africa's 72 Tests, 20 of their 142 one-day internationals, and six of 24 Twenty20s. He knows what he is talking about and his form and immense strength of character, his aggression and his stubbornness have been the trademarks of an admirable tenure.
"I have said quite often I tried to be a certain way when I took over," he said. "At 22, 23 I felt that I needed to be a strong individual whereas I reckon in the last two to three years I feel I have really settled into the job and am much more comfortable with who I am and being myself.
"I think that's the key as captain, there is a lot of pressure on you. It is a tough environment to manage consistently and I think being yourself is a crucial aspect. I think it's also tough to allow people to see who you really are and that's something that it took me time to come to terms with." Another ouch.
Smith said he still had things to achieve as a captain but will probably reassess the position in 2011. He is already planning his succession.
"I have no problem in playing for South Africa as a good senior pro at some stage in my career. I've been captain almost from my first game so it is something I'm looking forward to, but there are still more things I want to achieve as captain."
Smith is still only 28. It could be said that he has already caused the downfall of two England captains, both Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, in 2003 and 2008 respectively, resigning their post mid-Test series against him. Did he fancy the hat-trick?
"I hope it is not third time unlucky for me. It was two very different times for me. When I was 22 I was a bit 'balls to the wall', trying to find my own way and trying to be strong and work out what captaincy was all about. I didn't really appreciate the things Nasser was going through at the time and what he was saying, but the stuff Michael said resonated with me having been captain for a long time.
"Any national captain would be lying if he told you that there weren't periods of being tired, or being stressed, or being exhausted but you learn to manage, you have to learn to manage these things, finding your ways to make it successful, whether it's finding more time for yourself or finding areas to improve your emotional state, it's the mental side of the game more than physical really."
Smith will treat the Twenty20 matches this weekend with profound seriousness, intending to seize an early initiative. The feeling was that he had already done so.Reuse content