Graeme Smith has never faced a challenge like the one confronting him over the next two weeks. He hasn’t even come close.
It’s not that New Zealand are a superior team, or even that they are so much better than England, Pakistan or the West Indians whom South Africa have just played, it’s the devils at home that pose the greatest threat.
Rarely has a South African team been more ripe for the taking than this one. They have developed a ‘damage limitation’ frame of mind which means they are desperate not to lose the series rather than desperate to win it. And the fact that they are ‘desperate’ at all is not a good sign.
The series has become personal, too, which adds a degree of tension to most individual performances and there are very few sportsmen who know how to turn tension into a performance-enhancing emotion. Usually it is the opposite.
But Smith’s greatest battle is against the emotional fatigue that is gripping the majority of players. Call it ‘tour syndrome’ if you prefer, but this unnatural lifestyle occasionally leaves you disorientated and struggling for perspective.
Like the marathon runner with five kilometres to go, or the amateur golfer with five holes left on a day of 36, you reach the point where you just want to get to the finish line and/or the clubhouse and it’s difficult to care what you look like doing it.
“I see a lot of hollow eyes in the squad, they are looking and feeling very drained,” said coach Eric Simons. “That is not an excuse and never will be. As Graeme always says, that’s part of the job these days. But that’s how they’re feeling nonetheless; it’s just the way it is. They’re going to have to raise themselves a long way to win the series,” Simons said.
Which doesn’t mean to say it can’t or won’t happen but first Smith and his players must erase the personalities of the opposition from their minds.
Stephen Fleming’s sarcasm, the obtuseness of the series administrators (both ICC and NZC) and the overall series result must be blocked out. Cricket matches are won with bats and balls, the rest is merely decoration.
Against England, Smith and his team were helpfully described as underdogs before a ball was bowled which meant no pressure. Against Pakistan most players felt it was a pretty good result not being blown up; the match results came second.
Against the West Indies Smith’s team quickly went one-nil up and never looked back.
Now they are toe-to-toe with an opponent they were widely expected to beat and they have taken a lot of punches. The bookmaker’s favourite is bloodied and sagging and the underdog is bouncing around like a young, cocky Cassius Clay. And rightly so. This is one helluva fight to win. If they do win it, they’ll never forget it.
And the reason they might just manage it? Unlike the other SA teams over the 10 years that have been ‘ripe for the taking’, this one has identified its problems now, not in retrospect.
They have enough experience to have seen this problem before. They are encouraging each other through the last five kilometres, reminding each other that when they are in the clubhouse they will be grateful to have played the last five holes properly and not rushed them.
Graeme Smith says he loves a challenge, and he’s risen to the occasion more often than not. Eden Park promises to be a very big occasion indeed.
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