Ponting and Smith still smell war paint


Tim Ellis looks at the rivalry between Australia veteran Ricky Ponting and South Africa captain Graeme Smith ahead of the Test series Down Under.

When it was reported Graeme Smith would be targeting Ricky Ponting in this week's Test series opener, the 37-year-old Tasmanian laughed it off: "I've had opposition teams trying to pick my technique apart for 20 years and I've managed to find a way to combat things most of the time."

For half of that period, the Proteas captain and the former Aussie skipper have been adversaries on the field. It all started in Cape Town in 2002, when the young Smith took on the might of McGrath, Warne, Gillespie and Lee, making a gutsy 68 in a losing cause.

He later complained bitterly of Australian sledging, going to the press with the names of the culprits. The Aussies were not impressed at this breach of player protocol. Gillespie said in his book: "Given that he was only 20 at the time, who knows if he would have handled the situation better if he'd been a few years older."

What it proved was that Smith had some mettle, even if maturity might be missing at this point. In just over a year, the young buck had been appointed captain of the full Test team. Nasser Hussain may have described him as 'Wotsisname' before the series in England during 2003, but soon realised his full name after the left-hander plundered 277 in the opening Test at Edgbaston.

A few months later, Steve Waugh played his final Test match in Sydney and one RP Ponting was to fill his boots in more ways than one. When the teams met home and away during 2005-6, Ponting was thirsting for vengeance on anybody after the ignominy of losing the Ashes.

His first full-blooded clash with his opposite number was horribly one-sided both on and off the pitch. In six back to back Tests, in Australia and South Africa, the Aussies claimed victory in all but one as Smith barely scored a run of note.

Smith's attempt to bait Ponting at every opportunity – he suggested that Shane Warne was the real on-field leader in times of crisis – also backfired. Meanwhile, an unflappable 'Punter' secured three centuries as the Australians rediscovered their dominance and swagger.

During both series, there was a meekness about the Proteas when there needed to be more boldness. Ponting would hound Smith on his own form against the Australians. The PR battle was a one way street and the Tasmanian devil showed no mercy.

It was only in Perth 2008, that the South African 'weaklings' turned aggressors. Smith finally proved himself, albeit against a side that lacked the powerhouse stars of yore. On the back of his century, they chased down a monumental 414 to win the match.

The tide was turned for sure when the home side were crushed at Melbourne in the Boxing Day Test. Ponting's Empire appeared to be crumbling while his conqueror was finding diplomacy a little easier than before.

"I think the balance of power is evening out in world cricket," Smith said. "Credit to Australia, they've dominated world cricket for a decade. I think they've obviously enjoyed that time. It doesn't mean that they're going to be beaten in future tours and be easier to beat. But I think the balance has evened out a little." Calm and considered words indeed given what was to come.

In an amazing turnaround, Australia reversed the 2-1 scoreline with a host of new recruits and rookies. Twenty-nine days of Test cricket across three months had not been enough to split the world's two best teams.

Australia were still the No. 1-ranked team in the world. Even though he had the better personnel on paper, Smith could not out manoeuvre his old foe on home soil.

After a third straight Ashes loss, the resignation of the captaincy and his Test career teetering on the brink, Ponting played a big part in securing a win in the quite dramatic Johannesburg Test last year. His 62 probably saved his career and gave Smith yet another bout of head-scratching on how to make South Africa as ruthless as Australia were. The mini-series ended all square.

Perhaps that is why Smith has now vehemently denied head hunting his old enemy. "I don't look to put his head on a mantelpiece. He has done well and he deserves all the respect in the world. Our job is to go there and make sure that he doesn't perform."

It looks like Ponting has won the latest mental sparring, but the fact that he refers to 'Graeme' in his response suggests a certain mellowing since that very first pitch battle over 10 years ago.

As soon as they step over that white line, though, there will be no fiercer competitors. The only difference this time is that South Africa are number one by right.

<b>Tim Ellis</b>