Smith gears up for special occasion
The first Test of any series that will decide who sits at the top of the world is an occasion to savour, but South Africa captain Graeme Smith is keenly aware that this week’s encounter at the Kia Oval is one laced with extra significance.
Smith’s men head into the three-match Investec series against England aiming to knock the hosts off their perch at the head of the International Cricket Council’s Test rankings.
These shores have proved a happy hunting ground for Smith, who averages 72 in England over the course of a decorated career.
He led his first tour as captain here in 2003, scoring back-to-back double hundreds in the first two Tests before honours ended even over a thrilling five-match rubber.
Four years later, the Proteas secured a 2-1 triumph, again helped by a pair of centuries from their redoubtable skipper.
Three figures are on the agenda once more for Smith as he prepares for a 100th appearance in the longest form tomorrow.
“I'm extremely proud that I’m going to play 100 Tests for South Africa, hopefully,” he said. “It’s something that doesn’t come easy so if I wasn’t proud of it there would be something wrong with me.
“But there is a bigger thing at stake here with the next 15 days of cricket - myself and the team have been very focussed on that.
“The way that people have made it special for me obviously means a lot, but it’s going to come down to the cricket at the end of the day and that's what I've been focussing on.”
For Smith, the challenge will not be daunting.
The opener has been South Africa’s Test captain for an astonishing nine years now, though he has given up the reins in limited-overs cricket.
There is no sign of his enthusiasm dwindling, with Smith insisting the new coaching regime - headed up by Gary Kirsten - that took control last year has rejuvenated him.
He added: “I’ve obviously given up a bit of that responsibility and I feel quite renewed in the job actually since Gary and the team have taken over.
“I’m excited to do it; I don’t know how long I’ll do it for, but as long as you feel you can add value and the team wants you to be there, you want to perform that role.
“I guess nine, 10 years is a long time, longer than anybody has probably coped with the pressures of an international captaincy, which has been a challenge at times. But I think I’ve taken it in my stride.
“It’s not something that I’ve given a lot of thought to. I take it as it comes. Obviously, I still have a goal to play international cricket for a period of time.
“I’m excited for what the next few years hold, whether I’ll be captaining all that time I don't know.”
Captaining may well be nothing new to Smith, yet he must lead without arguably his most erstwhile lieutenant in this series.
Mark Boucher would have reached his own landmark of 150 Tests by playing throughout the three-match series, but a devastating eye injury suffered in a tour match at Somerset forced the veteran wicketkeeper into international retirement.
Though deeply disappointed to be without his close ally, the arch pragmatist in Smith is focussing on the bigger picture.
“When you’ve had someone who has played 147 games and been an integral part of the team, there’s a natural progression that needs to take place,” he said. “For me to say that Mark would not be missed would be the wrong thing to say.
“He’s a guy that’s been an integral part of our Test team and I think he’ll be with us through the series in many different ways.
“He’s already been on the text a lot to most of us and I think there are guys that are excited to have the opportunity to fill those spaces now.
“There are some talented cricketers around that are going to get an opportunity, have different responsibilities in this series and that’s exciting also.”
The talented South Africans of Smith’s generation are able to showcase their abilities on the global sporting stage, an opportunity denied to many in the previous century as the apartheid regime saw the country excluded from worldwide competition.
Nelson Mandela led South Africa out of those bleak and shameful times towards democracy and reintegration with the international community.
South Africa’s cricketers, rugby players, golfers and athletes now sit comfortably among the world’s best and, with a debt of gratitude in mind, Smith would love nothing more than to mark the former president’s 94th birthday today with a proud triumph later this week.
“I don’t think the team can have any more motivation,” he added. “In build-ups like this it’s very easy to get emotional, so it’s just about keeping clear.
“Obviously Madiba’s birthday is a huge moment in South Africa and so much has been said about the great man.”