England v South Africa, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 5th day January 7, 2010

Smith left to dwell on another 'what if'

Cricket has always been a game of narrow margins, but this is ridiculous

When Mark Boucher was overheard on the stump microphone saying "it's just like Centurion", he couldn't have known how right he would be. Two wicket-taking deliveries are all that have separated South Africa from two Test victories. Now they head to Johannesburg with only a series to save. Cricket has always been a game of narrow margins, but that is ridiculous.

Throughout this contest, South Africa were unrecognisable from the chaotic unit that lost so humiliatingly at Durban, and after weathering a tough first day thanks to Jacques Kallis' hundred, they never ceded control of the match. Yet, they were still unable to secure a vital victory, and that will weigh heavily on their captain, Graeme Smith.

He, more than anyone, has helped shed South Africa's tag as a team of under-achievers, and series victories in England and Australia were huge moments in the development of his side. These, however, are troubled times. The inability to land that killer blow is haunting the hosts and the dreaded 'choker' term is beginning to rear its head again.

"It's probably going to take a day or two to sum up the way you feel," Smith said. "It's amazing how the emotions change. With 15 overs to go you are probably thinking 'what if' and suddenly we have been able to show great character and push it down to the last ball.

"From that perspective there are a lot of positives there, but obviously there is massive disappointment in that dressing-room at not being able to take that last wicket. It's hugely frustrating not being able to land the knock-out blow.

Three weeks ago at Centurion it was Makhaya Ntini who couldn't break through Graham Onions' defence and this time Morne Morkel failed to claim the final wicket. "He's probably carrying the whole world on his shoulders in that dressing-room at the moment, but he gave it 100%," Smith said. "They probably need to promote Graham Onions when they start getting on that roll."

However, the efforts of Morkel and Dale Steyn throughout this Test cannot be faulted. Steyn produced one of finest spells of pace bowling seen for a long time when he gave Paul Collingwood a horrid working-over in a gripping hour after lunch, while Morkel, if not quite the threat of the first innings, still produced disconcerting bounce from a good length.

It was Steyn's burst, though, that lit up the afternoon session as he sent down six overs with barely a ball off line. Time and again, Collingwood was beaten by 90mph outswingers and some of the deliveries were simply too good to find the edge. Steyn's pace barely wavered throughout the final day, and he was even able to recover from a leg problem at the beginning of the penultimate over for one final push.

"The wicket got slower and slower during the game which made the second new ball key and I really can't complain about the performance the two seamers put in with it," Smith said. "We asked a lot of questions and I think Paul played and missed at 10 out of 18 deliveries at one stage. So you can't really ask more from your seamers."

However, Smith was hampered by an injury to Friedel de Wet that meant he was restricted to eight overs of medium pace on the final day, while his other problem was the ineffectiveness of Paul Harris. As the partnership between Collingwood and Ian Bell grew it was crying out for a performance from the spinner, but Harris wasn't the threat that his captain so desperately needed.

At times Harris could barely land the ball, sending down a succession of full tosses throughout his 40 overs and it was only a pure fluke that one removed James Anderson via a bottom-edge onto the boot. Harris is an honest performer, who has made plenty out of his limited talents, but with a tour to India on the horizon this is a growing problem for South Africa. JP Duminy's offspin, which began the final-hour collapse, was more of a threat.

"The way the wicket played meant the new ball was going to be key," said Smith. "I thought we had it well set up at five-down. We bowled well with it and as the ball got older the wicket got slower and we needed to bring our spinners more into the game. We only really got success with that towards the back end. The first 10 overs with the new ball were key; Bell and Collingwood, credit to that partnership. They stuck to their game plans and really showed a lot of strength of character."

South Africa still have a series to save, but it will take a mighty effort to erase this disappointment by the time the final Test comes around at the Wanderers. It could so easily have been the other way round for Smith, and that's what will be hurting him most right now.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo