Strauss is not afraid of the 'Captain Slayer'

Graeme Smith already has scalps of two England captains but Andrew Strauss is determined there will be no-hat-trick as mouth-watering series gets under way

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The captain slayer embarks today on the quest for a hat-trick. He is likely to be denied. Whatever the outcome of the mouth-watering contest between England and South Africa, the first instalment of which begins this morning at The Oval, it is unlikely that Graeme Smith can provoke the downfall of another captain.

On Smith's two previous tours of England, the first as a tyro still wet behind the ears, the second as a shrewd, seasoned campaigner, the England captain of the day resigned. Nasser Hussain went after one Test in 2003 to be replaced by Michael Vaughan, and five years later it was Vaughan himself who walked into the sunset in a veil of tears after losing the series.

And here is Smith, the veteran now, for the third time, with Andrew Strauss confronting him. If the sobriquet for Smith is a tad dramatic, it was born in dramatic circumstances. Despite England's lofty status these days and Strauss's inviolable role in achieving it, it is only natural that thoughts turn to a third casualty.

Having taken England to No 1 in the world, however, Strauss does not expect to be it, smiling as the term used to describe Smith was put to him.

"I'm confident of that," he said yesterday. "But I don't think he sees himself as a captain slayer. I'm sure he's going to focus on trying to make sure South Africa play good cricket and that's what I'll be doing as well."

As for Smith, at the helm of South Africa's Test team for nine years and 91 matches and playing in his 100th Test today, he is well aware of the carnage he has wreaked previously in this country. But he has not sat at home in Cape Town, on the rare occasions that he has been there, musing over his haul.

"I don't take any pride in watching an England captain sitting there in tears resigning. They are two guys I have a lot of respect for and Andrew has earned that respect in his job also. I focus on South Africa and how we can perform to our best. Those things that happened with Michael and Nasser were just about us being here at the right time more than anything else."

Which begs the question whether it is the right time once more. England have won their last seven series at home and lost only two of the last 21, most recently, as it happens, to Smith's team four years ago. South Africa have been almost as convincing everywhere and have not been beaten away from home for six years and nine series.

This rubber is as close to call as all of them have been since South Africa returned to the international fold 20 years ago (South Africa 3, England 2, with two draws). It is the second oldest international cricketing contest after the Ashes and it has shown.

There has been a litany of stirring contests embodied by relentless, hard-nosed cricket, usually involving fast bowling. The next three weeks are unlikely to be much different and for the first time both countries can lay reasonable claim to possessing the best bowling attack in the world (with the batting units not far behind). Whichever wins in that debate, the surest aspect of it is that the third best is a long way back.

For Smith, this series is about something more than whether he can persuade Strauss his time is up. If South Africa win, they will take over the No 1 place in the ICC rankings.

And should Smith play all three matches, which is eminently probable since he has missed only four of the country's 94 Tests since he assumed the captaincy on 24 April, 2003, he will overtake Allan Border as the man who has been a Test captain on most occasions. Border led Australia 93 times between 1984 and 1994, Smith has been captain of South Africa on 90 occasions and the World XI once.

Strauss, by contrast, is a leader of raw inexperience. In all, he has led England 47 times and needs to survive intact until the first match of the series in New Zealand next winter to overtake Michael Atherton's record of 54 games, as he deserves to do.

It is remarkable that Smith shows no sign of going anywhere yet, the strains and stresses of the job seem merely to empower him. His Test durability may have been assisted by his quitting the limited-overs roles.

"I don't know how long I'll do it for but as long as I feel I can add value and the team wants you to be there," Smith said. "Nine, 10 years is a long time, probably longer than anyone has coped with the pressures of international captaincy, which has been a challenge at times, but I've taken it in my stride and hopefully always bounced back.

"It's something I take as it comes. I've still got a goal to play international cricket for a period of time. I'm excited by what the next few years hold in the international game, whether I'll be captain all the time I don't know. That's something that will unfold in the next period of time."

In a three-match series, which this unfortunately is, the side that wins the first Test has a cast-iron advantage. To earn it the tourists must do something they have never done before in 13 matches going back to 1907: beat England at The Oval.

They may take extra sustenance from the fact that it was Nelson Mandela's 94th birthday yesterday and nobody should underestimate his power to elicit the finest qualities of his compatriots.

"I don't think the team can have any more motivation to perform well," said Smith. "In build-ups like this it is very easy to get emotional, it's just about keeping clear. Obviously Madiba's birthday is a huge moment in South Africa, so much has been said about the great man."

If England have an equivalent reason for performing out of their skins it may be the Olympic Games in London, with the eyes of the world on the country. The cricketers can do their bit.

Strauss said: "We can't move the Olympic Games. I think there's a lot of anticipation about this series from the cricketing public. I don't think it's going to be overshadowed, I think it's going to go along concurrently." By late August when the series and the Olympics are done, with the one- dayers and Paralympics to come, both captains should still be in their jobs. But Strauss, with England at home, should just have the greater cause for celebration.

Graeme Smith

Age 31

Tests 99

Runs 8,042

Highest score 277

Average 49.64

100s 24

50s 32

Record as captain P91 W42 D23 L26

Win% 46.15

Andrew Strauss

Age 35

Tests 97

Runs 6,930

Highest score 177

Average 41.74

100s 21

50s 27

Record as captain P47 W24 D14 L9

Win% 51.06

Captain marvels: Smith's durability

Longest-serving Test captains:

1. A R Border (Aus) 1984-94: Tests 93 W32 D38 L22 (1 tie) Win% 34.40

2. G C Smith (SA) 2003-: Tests 91 W42 D23 L26 Win% 46.15

3. S P Fleming (NZ) 1997-2006: Tests 80 W28 D25 L27 Win% 35.00

4. R T Ponting (Aus) 2004-10: Tests 77 W48 D13 L16 Win% 62.33

5. C H Lloyd (WI) 1974-85: Tests 74 W36 D26 L12 Win% 48.64

Leading Englishmen:

8. M Atherton (1993-2001): Tests 54 W13 D20 L21 Win% 24.07

10. M P Vaughan (2003-08): Tests 51 W26 D14 L11 Win% 50.98

19. A J Strauss (2006-): Tests 47 W24 D14 L9 Win% 51.06

20. N Hussain (1999-2003): Tests 45 W17 D13 L15 Win% 37.77

21. P B H May (1955-61): Tests 41 W20 D11 L10 Win% 48.78

Oval details

England (probable): A J Strauss (capt), A N Cook, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, I R Bell, R S Bopara, M J Prior (wk), T T Bresnan, S C J Broad, G P Swann, J M Anderson.

South Africa (probable): G C Smith (capt), A N Petersen, H M Amla, J H Kallis, A B De Villiers (wk), J A Rudolph, J-P Duminy, V D Philander, D W Steyn, M Morkel, Imran Tahir.

Umpires S Davis (Aus) & A Rauf (Pak).

Pitch report Unlikely to be The Oval flier of yore, partly because of the weather, partly because of changed preparation. But it will be green and moist just below the surface.

TV Sky Sports 1, 10am-7pm.

Weather Today Cloudy with some sun. Small chance of rain. Max temp: 20C.