Grudge match puts Smith under the spotlight
Graeme Smith's leadership reputation has preceded him in India and there is an undeniable feeling that locals, as well as the rest of the cricket playing world, are enjoying the mounting pressure on Smith's team as they come to the end of an eight-day siege in one of India's least tourist-friendly cities.
Win on Tuesday and the pressure is gone, at least until Friday when they play Pakistan in Mohali. Lose and they will represent the biggest, most embarrassing flop of the tournament. Such is sporting life at the top.
Smith is suffering from the square-jawed, confrontational reputation he created for himself in the first two years of his captaincy. Little was reported, for example, of his praise for opposite number Stephen Fleming's brilliant 89 following the crushing loss in Mumbai last Monday. Instead he was portrayed as a whinger because, when asked what he thought of the pitch, he replied that he believed it was "not up to international standard." Fleming agreed. So did the ground curators who decided to spray the Brabourne Stadium pitch with glue for subsequent matches at the venue which will host the final on November 5.
In the days since, vice-captain Jacques Kallis admitted that he and his colleagues "should have batted better," but Smith is expected to provide the 'big comment' these days and, when he does, it sticks. "When people ask me a question I prefer to answer honestly," he says with a resigned sigh as opposed to the grunt of a couple of years ago.
"Nobody goes out there to fail on purpose," said Kallis. "We're all trying our best and we understand that our supporters are disappointed and frustrated when we lose. But it's time to deliver now, and we know that, too. We can still put it right."
As if there wasn't enough pressure on the South Africans already, wicket keeper Mark Boucher confessed yesterday that he was just one of several players who regarded the Sri Lanka contest as a "grudge match."
Boucher was captain of the national side in the injury-enforced absence of Smith and Kallis in Sri Lanka in August and was heavily criticised when they returned home prematurely amidst security fears following a bomb in the capital, Colombo.
"We were called 'chicken' and various other things, which was unfair and uncalled for," he said. "We have nothing against the any of the players, but the press in Sri Lanka were out of order. I am definitely one of those treating this game as a grudge match."
Smith raised the stakes on arrival in India when he declared his side "one of the favourites," and Boucher has raised them further. All will be well and good if they win. If they do not, however, the "egg on our face" which Boucher admitted was present after the first game will resemble an omelette. Made from ostrich eggs.
Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency