Hamilton: Which captain in world cricket would not want to be Graeme Smith? The South Africa captain seems to have it all - a team that has performed to match its reputation of being cricket's best travelling bunch, a clutch of experienced players who come to the party more often than not, youth that sprouts up at every corner and most of all, a bowling attack that is unquestionably dynamic, explosive and effective.
"He's said that he is probably more happy with this attack than he ever has been," Russell Domingo, South Africa's assistant coach, said of Smith. "He's got all facets covered. He's got Vernon [Philander] who is skilfull and controlled, he's got Dale [Steyn] who is aggressive, he's got Morne [Morne] who brings a different dimension, he's got a lesgpinner [Imran Tahir], he's got the experience of [Jacques] Kallis."
Having all those things would not matter much if Smith did not know how to use them. So far, his management of the attack has been exceptional as he has alternated their roles as aggressors and containers shrewdly. "A captain is generally going to be as good as the players are, or as good as your bowlers are. At the moment Graeme's got a really good bowling attack to work with," Domingo said.
"He can set fields according to plans because they are skilled enough to execute those plans. Maybe when the bowlers aren't that skillful or mature or experienced, it's not that easy to stick to a plan." Smith has had the luxury of, for example, being able to put a man at deep square leg to wait for a Brendon McCullum pull and being able to instruct his bowlers to bang it in short to him.
The other most distinct individual attack Smith has led was the one with the new ball-pairing of Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini through the mid 2000s. The pair was also a good mixture of accuracy and attack but did not have a key third element that Smith's seamers today have - a spinner who does more than hold up an end. "As a unit, this is probably one of the top bowling units that South Africa has produced in a while because there is no bowler that you can target because everybody is at you all the time. Everybody knows what is expected and has got the skills to execute it," Domingo said.
While Tahir has not had the success he has been craving, there is an unsung heroism about his presence in the side. South Africa simply know they have another wicket-taking option. Their belief in Tahir has resulted in him being willing to change certain aspects of his game and learn to play a more defensive role if needed. "Ultimately he's doing his job," Smith said, after the Hamilton win. "I'm hoping that when we get on that real turner he'll come to the party then and pick up some crucial wickets. But for the moment I think he's doing a good job and we all still have a lot of faith in him and we're comfortable with where we sit with him."
Wickets have mostly fallen in the direction of Vernon Philander, which has left the rest of the attack with very little to fight over. Philander's extraordinary success - 45 wickets in six Tests at an average of 13.6 - has been a key part of South Africa's overall ascendency. Domingo said although Philander's numbers have belied belief at times, they are not all that unexpected. "He has been an outstanding bowler in domestic cricket for three years so it's no surprise that he has done so well," Domingo said. "He's got an unbelievable amount of skill, really good control, can bowl a good bouncer, is up mid 130s and a lot of self confidence which is a great recipe for fast bowler. He has got controlled aggression which is great."
New Zealand's batting line-up has also made the South African attack's job easier. With only five specialist batsmen and a heavy reliance on at least two of them, McCullum and Ross Taylor, batting has emerged as New Zealand's weaker suit. "We do think that if we make early inroads we can put their lower order under pressure with the pace," Domingo said. "We see it as a perceived weakness that we can exploit. There's a lot of pressure on three or four of their batters to put in big performances and it is an area we can exploit."