Smith plays mind game

England hope for a lasting turn in fortunes as their South African- born batsman endeavours to re-establish himself; Derek Pringle in Kimberley talks to a nervous starter anxious to impress
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WHEN the first Test match gets under way at Centurion Park on Thursday, the seal will finally be set on South Africa's long journey back to the international stage. Strangely, this will be their first five-match series since their sudden return in 1991. But if South Africans in general are looking forward to an enthralling series against their oldest foe, it is one of their exiles, Robin Smith, for whom the homecoming means the most.

It was 10 years ago that Smith, having played his last game for Natal, qualified for England. At the time he felt South Africa were nowhere near a return to international sport, a yardstick the fledgling Smith craved to be measured against. Fifty-six Tests for his adopted country later, Smith is desperate to show those in South Africa who remember him as an impetuous and supremely talented youngster that the decision was the right one and that he has not wasted such precocity by throwing in his lot with England.

"I was very disappointed to miss out against South Africa in England, especially the historic occasion at Lord's in 1994,"Smith said in Kimberley. "So I really want to play against them, especially in Durban at Kingsmead, a ground that is very special to me and where I played a lot of my early cricket. I just hope the selectors give me the opportunity of playing in the big games because I know I'll succeed."

Ray Illingworth confirmed here yesterday that Smith had done enough in an encouraging knock of 48 to convince him that he was ready for the Test arena again. Smith's words were typically passionate talk from a man whose poor start to the tour had put him under pressure to regain the place he was forced to vacate last summer after Ian Bishop fractured his cheekbone at the Old Trafford Test. Three years ago, the anxiety over such a barren run of form would have bitten deep, and Smith, a sensitive soul, would have been fretting morning, noon and night. But sessions with the TV hypnotist Paul McKenna have, he claims, put him in touch with his subconscious and he is far more phlegmatic about setbacks.

"I'm probably still just as nervous a starter when I bat, but I'm much more focused and I've definitely concentrated my desire to perform at Test level. But compared to others, I still get overwrought because playing for England means so much to me. I know I put undue pressure on myself in my desperation to succeed, but I just hate letting people down."

One of those he is particularly loath to fail is his captain and close friend Michael Atherton, who once having spent a convivial evening chez Smith, promptly informed the Hampshire batsman over his morning cornflakes that he was dropped. But despite the persuasive good form of Atherton's Lancashire team-mate John Crawley, the England captain believes Smith to be a big-match player who comes good on the day irrespective of the form guide and the apprehension that can understandably accompany a smashed cheekbone.

Any doubters of his determination should be directed to the Lord's Test last summer where with Illingworth's ultimatum - that it would probably be his last chance - hanging over his head, an out-of-form Smith scrapped his way to being England's highest scorer, a feat he managed four times in successive innings, two of them on the terror track at Edgbaston.

However, having admitted only a few years ago that pace turned him on, did he still feel, particularly in the aftermath of his damaged cheekbone, that he would far rather have the ball singeing his eyebrows than twiddling and turning about his feet? It is a question he baulks at, but only slightly, before answering.

"They always say that you never come back the same player once you've been hit. But I've thought about it and reckon that's just an easy excuse. It is true that I find balls firing past my nose inspiring, and I get a huge adrenalin surge from facing the quicks, but not every day. But on the 10 or so batting days we'll have during this series it will be a great challenge and one I believe I've thoroughly prepared for. I've designed a grille for myself and faced Devon [Malcolm] in the nets and felt in really good form. It's just in the middle where I haven't been able to get going."

Smith, now 32, is not alone in believing the main battle will be waged between England's batsmen and South Africa's pace battery, which now includes the 22-year-old Natal quickie Shaun Pollock, included in place of the injured Fanie de Villiers. "We are all aware that South Africa will be very aggressive, verbally as well as with the ball," Smith said, "but we can give as good as we get. There is no doubt in my mind that we'll bowl their batters out, so the key will be whether we can score enough runs against their quicks.

"With Allan Donald and Brett Schultz in their attack, they have two bowlers who can really unsettle batsmen. Schultz, although we've watched him on video, is an unknown quantity. He appears mainly to swing the ball away from right-handers, but he looks like he could be a handful if he gets it right."

If all five pacemen do play [Craig Matthews and Brian McMillan are the other two] the chances of some light relief for England's batsmen look slender. Pollock, however, following Paul Adams' match-winning six- wicket haul for Western Province at Centurion Park a week ago, could well make way for Clive Eksteen, the sole spinner in the South Africa squad.

Adams, a left-arm googly bowler, showed that the Centurion Park strip can take alarming spin. Such a situation would clearly suit England, so in all likelihood this will turn out to be no more than a mirage come Thursday morning.

England can at least take succour from the fact, that unlike their opponents' bowling, the Proteas' batting is steady rather than explosive. But a dearth of natural strokeplayers means they often need to be prised from the crease. Ideally, Atherton would like the aggression of Dominic Cork, Darren Gough and Malcolm as well as Angus Fraser's steadying influence to hand, but with Richard Illingworth sure to be included to do the stock bowling, it is between Malcolm and Gough for the final place.

England's batting takes care of itself. Alec Stewart is restored as Atherton's opening partner, while Mark Ramprakash comes in at three, to be followed by Thorpe, Hick and Smith, with Jack Russell at seven. As ever against brutish attacks, in what could be a low-scoring series, runs down the order will be vital and Russell - 93 not out yesterday - will have an important role as a pivot between the recognised batsmen and the tail.

Smith is upbeat about England's chances. "Last summer has really given us the confidence that we can play well over a series," he said. "We've got a bunch of young, hungry and arrogant blokes in the team now mixed with some older players who've had one or two knocks and can provide a bit of humility when it's needed. It's a really good balance. Everyone is so fired up that I can't see any reason we can't do the job properly and win the series."

My England XII: Atherton, Stewart, Ramprakash, Thorpe, Hick, Smith, Russell, Cork, Gough, Illingworth, Fraser, Malcolm.