Aus vs SA, 2022 – Steven Smith hopes to ‘get into a nice groove’ for South Africa Tests

Steven Smith and South Africa. Rightly or wrongly, that nation will forever be associated with Australia’s greatest batsman since Sir Donald Bradman.

But it’s not just Cape Town and Sandpapergate that unite Smith and South Africa. It’s no secret that South Africa have given Australia’s batting expert more trouble than any of his regular Test opponents.

Putting aside Bangladesh, who Smith has only faced twice, he is averaging 49 or better against all other Test opponents except South Africa. In fairness to Smith, his average of 41.53 against South Africa would be the envy of most Test batsmen. Mark Waugh is lauded in Australia as a modern great and his career average was 41.81.

But for Smith, in the context of his astonishing current career mark of 60.98, his record of just one century and three half-centuries in 17 innings against South Africa is a thorn in the side. The prospect of facing them again in a three-Test series for the first time since the infamous 2018 saga has him eager to prove a point in more ways than one.

“I’m very excited,” Smith said after Australia’s series win over the West Indies in Adelaide. “South Africa is probably the only team, they have played me pretty well in the past, my record is probably not as good against them as some of the others.

“Some of the bowlers I’ll be up against, I’ve been up against before. I’m looking forward to the series like everyone else. Hopefully I can get into a good rhythm.”

He’s already in a good rhythm. Smith believes he is batting the best he has done since 2014, having returned to a more lateral method which, incidentally, earned him his only Test century against South Africa at Centurion in 2014.

He has just feasted on the West Indies in Perth, where he scored 220 runs without being dismissed. But he does not rest on his laurels. He was frustrated at missing out on the fun in Adelaide, recording a rare early-innings duck that stood out as a shocking outlier on Australia’s scorecard wedged between Marnus Labuschagne’s 163 and Travis Head’s 175.

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Such is Smith’s thirst for batting and his thirst to improve, before the fourth and final day in Adelaide with Australia’s two innings of batting already completed in the game, Smith was in the nets facing red ball takedowns from the coaching staff to prepare for the first test in Brisbane in six days.

“I feel in a good spot, I’m hitting well, I’m feeling on a good rhythm and I’m looking forward to it,” Smith said. “I had a bump against the red ball this morning in the buildup, just switching from the pink, so the focus can now go fully to South Africa and I can’t wait.”

He also knows that South Africa is one step ahead of what he just faced. Fast West Indies Alzarri Joseph launched a couple of decent spirited spells in the two-Test heat, pushing 140kph, but these were largely avoided by Smith. Instead he had gorged himself on the mostly sub-80mph bids from Kemar Roach, Jayden Seales, Jason Holder and Kyle Mayers, as well as the less threatening offshoot of Roston Chase and Kraigg Brathwaite.

Kagiso Rabada and Keshav Maharaj will be waiting for Smith in Brisbane, having dismissed him in the Tests three times each. Interestingly, Dean Elgar also picked it up twice. But Anrich Nortje, Marco Jansen and Lungi Ngidi will not hesitate to try Smith’s revamped method in the same way that New Zealand’s Neil Wagner and England’s Mark Wood had him review his technique in recent summers.

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“You play what’s in front of you,” Smith said. “Sometimes when you’re up against faster bowlers it can be easier to score and things like that than if you’re up against someone who bowls 80 mph and nibbles at them.”

“That’s the key to any attack, to have that kind of variety so you never get into a rhythm as a batsman. I think South Africa provides that; they have Nortje bowling 150km/h, Rabada 140-150, then a left-footed on Jansen, and a good spinner in Maharaj. It will be a good challenge for our hitters and hopefully we can continue as we started the summer.”

Smith will enjoy the challenge on the field. Tough as the South African attack is, it will always be more welcome than the constant review of Cape Town events in 2018. They are inescapable for him, particularly after having captained against the West Indies in David Warner week he created headlines even as he tried to avoid reopening old wounds.

“The cricket we’ve played in the last four and a half years, we’ve played it the right way, we’ve been tough and we played it in the right spirit,” Smith said. “For us nothing changes, we’ll just carry on with our business and hopefully continue to play some good and entertaining cricket.”

Smith and South Africa are not a match made in heaven, but they are still a promoter’s dream.

Alex Malcolm is Associate Editor of ESPNcricinfo

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