Cricket: Steve Smith made to look mortal as South Africa put captain in spin

Adam Collins in Port Elizabeth
The Guardian
Australia captain Steve Smith has been far from his imperious best on the tour of South Africa.

Steve Smith made to look mortal as South Africa put captain in spin

Australia captain Steve Smith has been far from his imperious best on the tour of South Africa.

“He’s just looked in complete control, hasn’t he?” This was Steve Smith, talking about AB de Villiers after his side were comfortably beaten in the second Test in Port Elizabeth. Variations of that sentence are routinely uttered by exasperated opponents of the Australian captain from all over the cricket world. But less often by the South Africans, and certainly not over the last fortnight.

Smith has now gone 14 innings without posting three figures against the Proteas, a drought that goes back to the first rubber of this corresponding tour four years ago. Smith’s peerless standard makes this anomalous, as is the fact that he has been out three times to left-arm spin in four innings across these two Tests – by far the mode of bowling he has fared worst against across the last two years, averaging better than 100 against all others.

“The more you play, the more people have plans for you to try to keep you quiet,” Smith observed of his form. “It’s just a part of batting, sometimes you have to work really hard for your runs and take a little bit longer, and some days you come out and things happen really quickly for you. It’s just a part of playing and adapting to whatever’s being thrown at you.”

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The world’s leading batsman is averaging a positively mortal 32 in this series and no other Australian has posted three figures. That David Warner hasn’t dominated either is a reminder that the last time neither of Australia’s big two went big was when South Africa humbled them 16 months ago. As former Test opener Simon Katich put it on SEN radio, there is a sense of over-reliance on the pair. “They can’t always rely on David Warner and Steve Smith to get the hundreds,” he said. “The others have to start scoring them as well.”

Another similarity to the last time they faced Faf du Plessis’ side is the regularity with which wickets are falling – one every 51.8 deliveries, compared to every 109.5 balls in the Ashes. In Durban, not losing wickets in clumps made up for their lack of one dominant performance, but at St George’s Park, collapses returned for the Australians in a way they hadn’t since touring Bangladesh last year. In both Tests, wickets fell on the cusp of intervals more often than not.

This makes the fitness of Mitch Marsh all the more important; the man in the best nick of the Australian top six. Never since his debut in 2014 has the all-rounder been so vital. In each Test since returning to the side in December, he’s had an innings last at least 100 balls, and he’s now taking wickets with the old ball. But he picked up a groin strain for his efforts. For the tired bowling group, heavily taxed by De Villiers in the second leg of back-to-back Tests, a long mid-series breather is helpfully timed.

Despite playing well below their best, Smith’s side were, by his estimation, only 100 runs from a realistic tilt at a 2-0 lead. He was buoyed by the four wickets they claimed in the second innings, finishing the fixture with a fight. “I’m proud of the boys,” Smith told SEN. “It was nice to take a few wickets and nice to get AB out conventionally for the first time this series. Hopefully, we left a few scars on their top order.” Nathan Lyon will leave better for his second shift, as will Usman Khawaja after scrapping 75.

Given it was their first loss in a Test Match since September, having won six and drawn once since, don’t expect panic. It won’t hurt that they won’t be forced to face Kagiso Rabada again on the tour, provided the local talisman doesn’t successfully appeal his series-ending ban. For theatre, there could be no better replacement than Dale Steyn given his long and storied history against Australia, but that looks less likely by the hour. It doesn’t change the story for Australia – they just need big runs, and will take them from anywhere.

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