India v South Africa, 3rd Test, Kanpur April 10, 2008

Smith ready for spin battle

Graeme Smith: "Looking at the deck, it opens up all possibilities for all bowlers and that is encouraging for us" © Getty Images

Over the last year South Africa have made huge strides in Test cricket that cannot be overlooked. Now at the cusp of a big upset, they know they will have to face the toughest test of their tour so far: a dry, deteriorating, underprepared pitch.

Micky Arthur, their coach, said they expected such a wicket after what happened in Ahmedabad. While that is something they cannot control, they have been trying whatever they can at the nets. They have been scuffing up the practice wickets with their spikes to simulate the rough outside the off and leg stumps. Their batsmen also had short stints using a stump instead of a bat. There have also been reports that they got the groundsmen to prepare the four practice wickets in a way such that they can treat them as first-day, second-day, third-day, and fourth-day wickets.

South Africa are close to accomplishing a feat that calls for such preparation: winning a Test series in India for the second time in a decade, and the possibility of series triumphs in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India in one season. "There have been only two teams in the last 20 years that have won a series in India," Graeme Smith said at the pre-match press conference. "It just proves how tough it really is. As a team we have looked for this opportunity for the whole season."

And if simulated net practice is not enough, they have also had match experience of playing in spinning conditions recently. "We beat Pakistan at Newlands where it spun, we beat Pakistan away where it spun," Smith said. "In Bangladesh, in the one-dayers they produced slow, low turners. We adapted to that perfectly fine." The Kanpur wicket, though, if it lives up to the billing it has been given, could prove to be something totally different from what they have faced till now.

However, South Africa are also aware that if the cracks open up, their fast bowlers could prove to be a major threat on this pitch. When asked if as a batsman he would like to face Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel on a crumbling surface, Smith said the pitch had already begun to crack up. The gleam in his eyes suggested he liked the prospect of the opposition batsmen taking guard against the same bowlers who steamrolled them at Motera.

South Africa, though, haven't ruled out the possibility of playing two spinners. "We have two spinners in our squad. We would have made up our mind by the end of today," Smith said. But it seems unlikely they will tinker with the winning bowling combination. "We have done a few things that have worked for us in the last two Test matches. It can work for us in this Test too.

We are definitely the more confident team going into this Test match, definitely the team under less pressureGraeme Smith

"Looking at the deck, it opens up all possibilities for all bowlers and that is encouraging for us. We have got a lot more variety, a lot more pace, and we feel that Paul Harris has done a really good job for us in the series." Harris, who has been confined to the containing role so far, will have to take up a much more important role in this Test.

Smith knows it is India who need to catch up. "We are definitely the more confident team going into this Test match, definitely the team under less pressure," he said. "India is still the team with more question marks in terms of selection, in terms of injuries, in terms of their being 1-0 down in the series."

Selection, unlike for India, should not be a worry for South Africa, the only point of contention being whether to play two spinners. In terms of fitness, they have been streets ahead of their opponents. Their batting have been consistently among the runs: four out of their top six have scored a century. Only Ashwell Prince has not got a half-century so far. They will know that if they win the toss and put up anything in excess of 300, they will put India under severe pressure. And if the wicket turns out to be a really difficult one, the technique and the fighting abilities of Jacques Kallis alone should make it worth a trip to the match.

There is no doubt as to which team is more at ease going into the match. But momentum shifts fast in India, and South Africa will have to maintain the same composure when they are faced with four to five close-in fielders, uneven bounce and turn, and menacing spinners for company throughout the time they bat.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo