Smith’s decisive ploys have made the difference

2008-12-29 00:00

At 4.21 pm on the fourth day of a remarkable Test match, Graeme Smith had a brainwave — by no means his first of the contest.

His counterpart (Ricky Pointing) had reached 99 and needed one miserly single to record his second hundred of a compelling confrontation. It had been a defiant, skilful, adroit hand from a man standing resolute against the times. But he had spent 40 minutes negotiating the nineties and suddenly seemed vulnerable. It was hardly surprising. He had a lot on his plate.

Sensing anxiety; Smith stopped proceedings and redeployed his troops. Acting on his hunch he moved himself to short cover, thereby setting the same trap that had been sprung on Matthew Hayden. His reasoning was clear. Already several batsmen had mistimed off-side forces. Besides the opener, Michael Clarke had miscued a back foot shot to extra cover. Perhaps he could coax another error from a pressing opponent. It was exactly the sort of opportunity Ponting himself has been slow to recognise.

Ponting surveyed the field change in his unemotional way, took guard and prepared to face Morne Morkel.

The ball was pitched up, Ponting had been driving superbly and had no reason to sense danger. But the ball had been held back a fraction and too late the accomplished Australian checked his stroke. Unfortunately his grip on the bat loosened and the ball headed unerringly towards his opposite number. Smith threw the ball skywards and celebrated as gleeful team-mates mobbed him. It had taken a superb piece of captaincy to end a majestic innings. And in that moment came a shift in the balance of power.

Throughout the Australians innings Smith remained a step ahead of the action. Sometimes he kept bowlers going longer than anticipated and was rewarded as wickets fell towards the end of their spells. Throughout his field placements were thoughtful, especially around the bat. A man was put at silly mid-off for Ponting and removed for Clarke. Spin was tried as soon as Brett Lee arrived owing to his habit of jabbing at dropping deliveries.

Even the positioning of the short cover for Hayden was spot on. Of course, the dismissal relied on the co-operation of the batsman but Smith had acted on his thought.

Suddenly Australia have a hundred headaches and the visiting team none at all.

Now Smith must finish the job that he began so commendably in Perth. He has set out to win the series and enjoy the trip, a combination that has helped his players to relax and retain confidence.

Contrastingly, Ponting left the field with much on his mind. He has batted brilliantly but may end up exhausted and empty-handed. Within a few hours, Australia may have lost a series and the right to be regarded as the best in the world. Whereas most of Smith’s players are at their peak, the hosts are ripe for change.

Just the gloomy weather forecast, it seems, can now deny the South Africans.

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