‘Play along with the crowd and have fun’ – Steven Smith on his return to South Africa

Steven Smith plans to “smile and laugh and play along and have fun,” with South African crowds over the next three weeks as returns to the scene of his ball-tampering offence. And he will have to start at the most hostile ground in the country.

Although the sandpaper gate had unfolded at Newlands, where Australia will play the last of the three T20s, the Wanderers in Johannesburg was where they lost the final Test in 2018, where Darren Lehmann resigned and the city out of which Smith was frogmarched by a police escort on his way home. It is also, as England have just experienced, where the crowd are unashamedly vocal against the opposition but Smith is prepared, and a little excited.

“They are hostile at the best of times here,” Smith said. “It doesn’t bother me too much. Like Justin (Langer) said we had the dress rehearsal in England where there was a fair bit going on but I honestly don’t notice it, particularly when I am batting. I don’t really hear anything that’s going on and I block it all out. Maybe a little bit when I am fielding. But then again it’s just words, it doesn’t affect me. I think I will be doing some outfielding so I’m looking forward to it. I will smile and laugh and play along and have fun.”

But, Smith cannot block out everything. He admitted that coming back to the same accommodation the team stayed at in 2018 brought back difficult memories. “Walking into the hotel in Sandton, initially I was like, last time I left here it wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t the best time in my life,” he said. “But I’ve moved on from that and learned a lot over the last two years and I’m moving forward.”

Since making his comeback, Smith has scored two centuries and a double-hundred in the Ashes, a hundred in his most recent ODI innings against India and two unbeaten fifties in his last three T20 innings. In that time, he has come across South Africa only once, in Manchester at the 2019 World Cup where their parting shot was beating Australia. He has been in contact with some South African players and exchanged, “a few text messages with AB and Faf here and there but caught up with all of them during the IPL last year and when we played South Africa in the World Cup,” and found there were no hard feelings. “Everyone was pretty chilled. Everyone was just normal,” Smith said.

So far, people in South Africa have reacted similarly. “I’ve been to a few of the restaurants where people have been lovely,” Smith said. “Guys have come up and had a few photographs so that’s been good. It’s been pretty normal to when I have been here previously.”

That may change when he steps onto the field but Smith’s new attitude of “not taking things too seriously,” means he is more concerned with how well he will hit the ball rather than how many words are directed his way. “We are at a place with altitude, so the ball just flies. You don’t have to over-hit the ball. If you hit the middle of the bat, it will go a long way,” he said, recalling a conversation from eight years ago about how to approach batting at the Wanderers.

“I remember playing in the Champions League T20 final here and talking to Michael Lumb. I said, ‘What do you do here at the Wanderers?’ And he said, ‘Just get it in the atmosphere.”

Much like how is going to treat whatever South African fans have to say to him.