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April 2, 2008
The last time South Africa played a Test in Ahmedabad it was their first in India. India's current coach was one of their opening batsmen, Hansie Cronje and Mohammad Azharuddin were the captains and Graeme Smith was just a school cricketer in Johannesburg's King Edward School.
Twelve years on and South Africa don't have a single player from that match - the hosts have four - but they look a side rather accustomed to India, and that's because they have put in the hard yards in the subcontinent.
South Africa have had some extremely tough visits - namely Sri Lanka in 2004 and 2006, Pakistan in 2003 and India in 2004 - but under Smith over the last four years they have toured enough to understand what it takes to win.
The visitors appear a much more confident and relaxed team than some touring sides of the past, who came with limited mindsets, and with personnel not always pushing for victory. Their batting has clicked in the subcontinent recently, their bowling attack is balanced and they are led by a man who doesn't care too much for the past. On the eve of the second Test, Smith was markedly laidback compared to his opposite number, Anil Kumble, who briefly addressed the media while looking sterner than when a leg-before appeal has been turned down. Virender Sehwag took South Africa's attack to the cleaners during a manic 319 last week but Smith said his side had worked out a few things to contain him. Nor was he too concerned about the Motera pitch, which he described as "good, with some grass covering on it."
Smith's attitude reflects the state South Africa are in: confident after gaining a psychological advantage from the draw in Chennai and free of injury hassles. They know all too well that in Dale Steyn, Makhaya Nitini and Morne Morkel they have the bowling firepower to trouble India, who will be without the injured Sachin Tendulkar. And, crucially, they have a spinner who inspires faith in his captain. It makes for a hungry side.
While the Motera track historically breaks up to interest the spinners there's also evidence to suggest those cracks could aid the fast men. In 1996 Javagal Srinath exploited the craters on a poor surface to take 6 for 21 and skittle the South Africans, chasing 170, for 105. If Steyn were to stumble upon a breaking pitch there's no reason why he couldn't - with his tearaway pace - have India in trouble. Smith strongly felt this could happen.
India have struggled against reverse-swing, even as recently as the home Test series against Pakistan where, Shoaib Akhtar, when fit, hustled them in a couple of hostile spells. As the ball gets older around the 30-over mark, Steyn remains the biggest threat but Morkel, who bowled some top spells in Chennai, can summon up mean pace too.
India look likely to play three spinners but Smith wasn't worried about young legspinner Piyush Chawla, who could play his second Test. "We've had a look at him in the one-dayers in Ireland so we have an idea of what he bowls," he said. "There's video footage as well so it's not a major area of concern."
South Africa are pretty certain to go in with the same team, with Paul Harris playing as the specialist spinner. "We have prepared well and are confident. It's all about executing our plans right," said Smith. "After the last game, India have a few more things to think about than us in terms of combination, in terms of the selections of bowlers. So they have to answer our challenges, to make sure we come back down to neutral."
Ultimately the ground, the country or the continent doesn't matter: A team with skilled players that is looking to dominate can hold down any side, and it's with that belief South Africa are going into the second Test.
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