Cape Town – If there is no haven like home when the climate in the broader world seems a little stormy, then senior Proteas statesmen Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis will no doubt be delighted that the Test series decider against Sri Lanka takes place at Newlands here from Tuesday.
Smith may be Johannesburg-born, and Kallis had a brief stint away from his roots with the Warriors, but this city is their stomping ground of choice in more ways than one – it is certainly reflected in their fondness for excelling, and massively so, in Test cricket at the picturesque ground.
The national team is under fire for its ongoing failure to match with routine performance abundant staffing potential in the five-day arena, a situation badly aggravated by the limp surrender of the second Test in Durban to the underdog but startlingly rejuvenated Lankans.
Inevitably some of the most experienced components have come under scrutiny during the team’s frustrating inconsistency and, sometimes, hints of lethargy and joylessness.
It is a perfect time, then, for the indisputably “tough” to get going ... and they don’t come much steelier than Smith and Kallis, whatever the arguments that both, to varying degrees, may be losing aspects of their lustre.
Short-lived rumours that the former was considering giving up the Test captaincy swirled on the fiendish forum of Twitter during the Kingsmead fiasco.
Whether devoid of any legitimacy or not, they were at least indicative of the cloud that hovers not terribly far from the Proteas camp at this time of continued under-achievement.
Incidentally, I am not among those who suspects Smith’s captaincy is the key root of the Proteas’ relative woes, even if I do have some mounting fears that he may have lost a bit more of his hunger for the job than he realises after all these years burdened by the multi-pronged cares that come with the turf.
He is still an inspiring fellow in a lot of ways, with a track record to prove it. Not too many compelling rival candidates for the chore come to mind, especially as we await judgment on AB de Villiers’s maiden one-day leadership qualities, a few days further up the line when ODI hostilities start at the sleepy hollow of Paarl.
Kallis, meanwhile, suffered the indignity of a first-time pair in his 149th Test, but he is a great respecter of the levelling qualities this game provides ... and at least will know that the only way is surely up again for him!
His 150th cap coming at Newlands will please him, too: it is a place where his batting prowess has been especially awe-inspiring.
Kallis’s Test average still seriously lofty at 56.24, it swells to 72.07 at that venue from his 19 appearances there, with eight centuries to show.
Newlands over New Year? Images of Kallis centuries come almost automatically to mind – he has reached the landmark three times in his last four knocks in the traditional early-January fixture, including back-to-back ones under severe physical pain against India.
Indeed, it is hard to believe now that his first Test innings at Newlands – just his second game overall – was a watch-the-paint-dry vigil of seven off 65 balls against England in 1995/96.
Like his long-time ally, Smith’s batting average (49.64) balloons a fair bit when you break it down to Newlands alone – 58.63 in 13 Tests there.
He started promisingly in the shadow of Table Mountain, scoring a resilient 68 -- batting at No 3 behind Gary Kirsten and Herschelle Gibbs – in the second innings on Test debut against then-untouchable Australia in 2001/02 and has more or less flourished at the venue ever since, with four tons to boast.
The hefty left-hander has reached three figures in two of his last Tests at Newlands, the most recent being an unbeaten second-knock 101 to seal victory over the very Aussies in November.
Smith has reached at least a half-century in as many as nine of his 13 games at the ground, so if he is rather more fitful for major scores at other Test venues the world over these days, a pattern of heavy scoring in Cape Town is largely unchanged.
And taking away the Newlands factor for a minute, the environment is tailor-made anyway for someone like Smith to lead by example, something he can usually not be accused of failing to do when the chips are down.
He loves to be a central personal presence when a series is, or may be, at stake.
One big instance that comes most rapidly to mind was his seminal 154 not out at Edgbaston in 2008, when the Proteas were wobbling at 93 for four in pursuit of 281 to win the third Test – and thus clinch the series in England even with one Test left to play.
Monty Panesar was turning the ball almost square, and an equalising English victory seemed very much on the cards, but Smith’s composure and grit (crucially aided by another veteran under present pressure, Mark Boucher) saw the Proteas surge over the line.
In a 2003/04 series in New Zealand similar to the current one against Sri Lanka -- played over three Tests and with the final one anything but a dead-rubber fixture -- South Africa, 1-0 down, had also wobbled to 36 for three in pursuit of 234 to share the summer spoils, but Smith’s 125 not out eventually made light enough work of achieving exactly that.
Yes, a productive personal homecoming from either or both of “Biff” and “Jakes” would probably go a long way to getting the Proteas over the line against Sri Lanka in this unexpectedly nerve-jangling Test match for them ...
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