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Edward Craig in Cape Town
March 17, 2006
When South Africa were 2-1 down playing the final Test against England at Centurion Park in January last year, they opted to play for a draw through steady, time-eating batting - better a 2-1 defeat than risk a 3-1 drubbing trying to draw the series. It was a negative and fruitless call, roundly criticised. As it happened, South Africa found themselves in a position to win the match but ran out of time. England won the series.
Since then, Graeme Smith has tried to reinvent his side. Alongside Mickey Arthur the new coach, he has preached a "Brave Cricket" mantra - playing positively, risking losing to win, changing the philosophy of South African cricket since readmission. The second day at Cape Town was when this pledge was tested to the limit.
But talking this sort of talk, especially against this tough Australian Side, is a lot easier than walking that sort of walk. What does it mean? How can you execute an aggressive, positive game plan if you are out-gunned to start with? Smith's intent is to be positive in defence as well as attack - a coaching cliché that means decisive action when you are up against it and even if you are losing make them work for it. And this South African side is not out-gunned by a teetering Australian megalith.
Brave Cricket started in Australia - Jaques Rudolph's defeat-defying hundred at Perth. Then in Sydney, already a match down, Smith declared for the second time in the match, setting the Australians a gettable target but giving his side a chance of victory. That this emerging team squandered the chance and came up against Ponting at his best was not the point - the intent was clear.
Then Brave Cricket came to a head, it seemed, at that bizarre game in Johannesburg - doesn't matter how many you get, we'll get more.
Today, though, was the biggest test of Graeme Smith's new philosophy. The batting had failed, the Aussies were set, the wicket seemed to be flattening out, although it remained two-paced throughout the day. This was tough, unglamorous Test cricket, where the will of the batsmen battled the will of the bowler. Smith and South Africa had to be brave, to prove a point against Australia who had (especially Warne) doubted their resolve. There was no hysterical Joburg crowd to inspire them, just two of Australia's all-time great batsmen to dislodge.
Smith made South Africa fight so hard that they grabbed Australia's last nine wickets for 133 and almost dragged themselves back into the match. His captaincy was brave, his field settings and bowling changes were brave, the way he controlled the pace of the game and the emotions of the players was brave and in the morning session, where the fielders couldn't catch a train, he kept going, kept heads held high and finally won through.
He knew that they were creating enough chances for something to happen. As Ponting and Hayden were fighting through a tough 154-run partnership, as chances slipped by and decisions went against him, he stayed brave. Eventually the breakthrough came, Ponting caught driving at short cover - a clever position on this wicket - and Smith sensed an opening. He knows Australia's middle order is brittle, Adam Gilchrist is struggling for form, Mike Hussey (despite his age) is green, and Andrew Symonds is more a hit-and-hope allrounder than a cultured Test player.
Clever field settings to Gilchrist, reminiscent of the Ashes, worked beautifully with Jacques Kallis playing the round-the-wicket Flintoff role, three fielders blocking the drive straight on the offside, leaving an inviting gap square and eager slips and deep gully. This is a high-risk policy, it could take a Gilchrist century before it pays off, but Smith stuck with it and, fittingly, took the catch at first slip himself. It was a great moment for South Africa.
Then, as Nicky Boje suffered at the hands of Symonds as he swung four sixes over the onside, Smith stuck with him, backed his only spinner on a turning wicket and although it cost a few runs, was ultimately successful. This was a hard, determined fightback in a series that means so much.
South Africa did lose wickets as they attempted to calve out a lead. Warne found ominous turn and had Smith lbw in his first over. Lee bowled one of those explosive spells that reinvented his career in the Ashes, claiming de Villiers and Gibbs in the same over.
It is tough out there and South Africa will need their bravest batsmen at their very best to post a testing total on Saturday. This wicket is not getting any easier and, although Australia are in front at this stage, a tricky 150 will test the mental fortitude of even the world's best.
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