|Suffering Saffas: Graeme Smith and Kevin Pietersen|
I’m not talking about the bail-inflicted eye injury in Somerset which sent the veteran Proteas wicketkeeper Mark Boucher in to premature retirement a fortnight ago. Nor the back injury which has seen young Titans paceman Marchant de Lange return home.
We could discuss stand-in wicketkeeper AB de Villiers’ secret back spasms too, or the battle for a Test starting spot among England’s pace battery. Or even the possibility of a great series between the world’s No1 and No3 ranked nations being ruined by the wettest British summer on record.
No, the two key issues lie away from today’s first Test.
Kevin Pietersen’s snub
The first problem is well-known and typically topical. England’s master batsman Kevin Pietersen was yesterday left out of the 30-man provisional squad to defend the World T20 in Sri Lanka this September amid much wrangling.
Pietersen, born and raised in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, had offered to resume his limited-over duties after “retiring” in May – on condition he was allowed to play a full (highly lucrative) IPL tournament and miss the two (less lucrative) Tests against New Zealand May next year.
Unsurprisingly, with coach Andy Flower pulling the strings, Pietersen’s offer of compromise was summarily rejected. Cape Town-born Flower played for Zimbabwe during his playing days and perhaps harbours resentment towards KP for the path his career took after he turned his back on the nation of his birth (he made his England debut against Zimbabwe in 2004).
Flower told the Mail on Sunday: "I think it's sad for a player in his batting prime not to be playing all forms of international cricket, something that a lot of the guys work very hard for but are also very lucky to have the opportunity to do.
"I would hate for him to get to the end of his career and look back and think, 'Oh damn, I wish I hadn't missed the World T20 or the 2015 World Cup'.
"Maybe he won't. Maybe he's a very... well he is a very different person to me, so he might not think that way at all."
That’s no way for a coach to speak about his most valuable player. Some think Pietersen will be inspired by his T20 snub, others suggest he will spend the next five days sulking as he will now be offered reduced “Test only” terms by the ECB when his central contract is up for review in August.
The one good thing about the Pietersen debacle? It will leave Nottinghamshire’s Alex Hales (my 23-year-old Godson, but that’s not relevant here) to open for England in T20 after his swashbuckling 99 against the West Indies last month.
Graeme Smith’s pregnancy
The second key issue is less publicised. Graeme Smith, not Pietersen’s greatest fan, will start his 100th Test today with his Irish wife Morgan Deane about to give birth to their first child.
On twitter this week, Morgan – described as a singer, song-writer and fashion guru in her profile – explained the pain of being separated from her husband as she builds up to the big day.
She said: “Being without my husband the last two weeks of my first pregnancy is not the easiest thing I’ve done… I’ll take that medal now please. Cheers.”
Morgan, who started the “Penisgate” storm last month when she tweeted about buying a book called “Living With A Big Penis”, added: “Let’s hope baby stays comfy and ain’t in a hurry. Early labour is NOT an option! Fingers crossed baba waits for dada!”
Smith will be hoping to be there for the birth in Cape Town in the gap between the first and second Tests, when the tourists are scheduled to play Worcestershire in a tour match. That leaves “Biff” a gap from the end of The Oval on Monday until Headingley, which starts on August 2.
For the two biggest names in this series, Pietersen and Smith will be battling to keep their off-field concerns out of the game.
For all his legendary focus, Smith may find that difficult. Though they have been married less than a year, Morgan has already suffered a miscarriage and told IOL’s Laura Butler in April: “I haven’t spoken about the miscarriage until now as mentally I wasn’t ready to, but since it happened to me and I’ve spoken to people about it, I realise how common it actually is.
“Whether you miscarry at three weeks or three months, it’s one of the most emotionally painful things to go through. It almost feels like Mother Nature is playing a horrific joke on you.
“I had a “missed miscarriage” which means I didn’t miscarry the regular way. So at the time it was very bizarre to get my head around the fact that there was no blood, but still they had to go in and remove the pregnancy.
“But it brought me extremely close to my husband and we only began the healing process really once I fell pregnant again two months later.
“The one thing about miscarrying on the first pregnancy was bringing about the realisation that we wanted this baby more than anything.
“I’ve put on the extra pounds because I’d been instructed not to exercise throughout this pregnancy and we didn’t want to take any risks. We are not taking one day of this for granted.
“We can’t wait to meet our baby and become parents.”
So if Morgan calls Graeme on the mobile and says she’s gone in to labour over the next five days, what will happen? Can Biff put it all to one side? Time will tell.