Putting Smith’s X-factor to the test

2009-02-24 00:00

IT’S the Australians’ turn in our back yard and the first Test match at the Wanderers, starting tomorrow, promises to be an enthralling one.

Ricky Ponting has done his best to assure the media and public alike that his team have left their series defeats at home — but he may yet have some convincing to do.

The advantage has certainly swung South Africa’s way, but we need little reminding that it hasn’t always been that way.

Mark Waugh told me a few years ago he believed the Australians had something over South Africa that prevented the Proteas from performing at their best and from winning, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He said South Africa have had great sides in the past, but always seemed to throw away good positions and end up on the losing side.

In the past, South African sides have indeed felt extreme pressure against the Australians and their performances have shown this.

In contrast, the Australians, who were not often under pressure, seemed to relish the challenge and were able to counter-attack, knowing that there were a string of extremely talented players able to bail them out.

What a luxury for past captains of Australia to be able to throw the ball to Glen McGrath or Shane Warne or turn to any number of batting legends when they needed to. Ricky Ponting, it seems, has not been as fortunate.

In the past, South Africa suffered an inferiority complex, which put them at a huge mental disadvantage before a ball had been bowled. They simply didn’t believe they were better than Australia, or that Australia could lose.

The advent of Graeme Smith and his position at the top of the batting order did much to change this way of thinking.

Smith is cocky and confident and even when he was still wet behind the ears, he refused to back down to any bowler.

This didn’t win him many friends among the Australians and there was plenty of aggression between McGrath and Smith during his first Test match against Australia.

The Aussies took great offence to Smith appearing to have the confidence of a seasoned veteran and not merely a Test debutante, and quickly nicknamed him “the Vet”.

Frustratingly for the Australians, Smith didn’t succumb to their sledging tactics and the more they targeted him, the more he seemed able to focus.

His confidence and self-belief have been infectious and are quite likely the X-factor that previous Protea teams have been without when confronting Australia.

In addition, South Africa’s recent success Down Under means there are youngsters who don’t yet know what it’s like to lose to Australia and this represents a huge shift in mental ascendancy in the Proteas’ favour.

The South African cricket-loving public is expectant and will be firmly behind their young Protea side when they take to the field tomorrow.

Smith will be leading his team secure in the knowledge that they have the confidence and belief in their own abilty to take on the Aussies in our back yard.

• Neil Johnson is former Natal, WP and Zimbabwe all-rounder who lives and coaches in Pietermaritzburg.

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