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December 15, 2009
The South Africans will have to remind themselves what game they are playing on Wednesday. White clothes, red balls and attacking fields ... that would be Test cricket, then. It is nine months since they beat Australia, at Cape Town, in their most recent five-day contest. Since then they have lived on a diet of one-day and Twenty20 action.
Five of South Africa's squad, including the captain Graeme Smith, haven't even played first-class cricket since March, and the team as a whole prepared with a training camp in Potchefstroom rather than turning out for their franchises in a round of Supersport four-day matches. Despite the concerns about coming into the series short of meaningful practice, the coach Mickey Arthur felt the greater importance was to get his Test squad back together after such a long time apart, and for his part, Smith doesn't believe the team will be caught cold.
"I wouldn't say under-cooked is the right word," he said. "We've played enough cricket, had enough training and enough match time. It is more the long haul of a Test match, being able to handle pressure for long periods and sustain performances for long periods. I know it's been a lengthy period since our last Test match, but our squad is a very mature one. It's had a lot of success, and each guy knows what he needs to do to be successful. We've prepared really well - and it's been a good, calm focus with intensity around our training sessions.
"It's always difficult to say where you are if you haven't played a Test match for a long time. But I think we're ready for tomorrow. It's up to us to come out and make that first day count."
A situation that Smith will definitely have to confront is not having his usual five-man bowling attack. Although Jacques Kallis has been passed fit for batting duties after his fractured rib, he won't be available with the ball which puts an added burden on the frontline bowlers, including Dale Steyn who has had recent hamstring trouble.
"It's obviously a luxury to have the five bowlers available," said Smith. "I hope the four picked can do the job well and take the pressure off me. We have some quality bowlers who can produce the results, but we're not going to have the luxury of Jacques [with the ball] so the responsibility shifts to all other places. Players know they're going to have to take on a little bit more."
One bowler Smith knows will run in all day for him whatever the conditions is Makhaya Ntini, who will be celebrating his 100th cap. "It's been a pleasure to be a part of his career and see the success he's had - where he's come from to where he is today," Smith said. "He's had his ups and downs but has always met them with 100% commitment. He's a vibrant personality, even to the point sometimes where we have to put a muzzle on him. We wish him all the success in the next game and a lot more to come. He's going to play a prominent role in the future, not only in this team but in South Africa."
Being greeted by a green pitch on the eve of the game may have given Smith cause to considering bolstering the pace attack in Kallis's absence, but he said there was "a 99% chance" they would play the left-arm spinner Paul Harris. "That's the way we've played our Test cricket over the last period of time, and I think we'll stick to it," he added. "The weather's going to be a lot better tomorrow, and there's still a lot of work to be done on the wicket this afternoon. I think it will change quite a bit, so we'll assess it in the morning."
Smith is a far more mature captain than the one England first faced in 2003 when his attitude didn't endear him to many of his opponents. Back in his younger days he would go down the route of making strong and provocative statements, but the older, wiser version instead opts for more subtle views about his rivals.
"They've got a few challenges like the loss of an allrounder," he said referring to Andrew Flintoff's absence, and he has also suggested that England's attack doesn't look overly threatening with Steve Harmison left back home in Ashington.
"And it wouldn't be the build-up to a South Africa-England contest without mention of Kevin Pietersen. "We'd like to make it a major test for him," Smith said. "That is our challenge as a team. We want to put all England batters under pressure, and he's a key figure in that line-up. We've worked on a few interesting gameplans to him. Since his injury, he's searching for a bit of confidence - and we hope we can keep him under that pressure he's had on the tour so far."
Plays of the Day from the second ODI between England and India, in Cardiff
Plays of the day from the third ODI between England and India at Trent Bridge