Ntini certain to play at Durban
South Africa captain Graeme Smith has assured Makhaya Ntini of his starting place in the second Test against England at Durban even if Dale Steyn recovers from his hamstring injury. Ntini's poor return of two wickets in his 100th match at Centurion, coupled with Friedel de Wet's impressive debut, started a debate about who would drop out should Steyn be fit.
It means South Africa are spared making a difficult decision over Ntini's position, whose place in the side is important for political as well as cricket reasons. Smith said that de Wet, despite taking 4 for 55 in the second innings of the first Test, including a spell of 3 for 11 with the second new ball, would be the man to step aside for Steyn.
Smith gave Ntini the final over in the first Test, despite de Wet having caused mayhem, and Graham Onions managed to block six deliveries to save the Test. Ntini, though, has the complete backing of his captain.
"It was terrific to see Friedel bowl that well," Smith said. "But the three guys who have had the job over the last period of time [Steyn, Ntini and Morne Morkel] have been really successful at it. Makhaya brings a lot of experience to our attack. He maybe didn't bowl as well as he would have liked in Centurion, but he's a guy I really support and he has been integral through my captaincy. So I really back him to come through and bowl well in this Test.
"Morne brings some variety to the attack with his pace and bounce and it was great to see Friedel bowl well, but if Dale is fit I think it will be a straight swap."
Steyn's fitness is not yet guaranteed as he tries to recover from the hamstring injured that kept him out of action towards the end of the one-day series and flared up again before play started at Centurion. Steyn, who has been bowling in Cape Town between the Tests, will be put through a rigorous fitness test and Smith echoed what the fast bowler told Cricinfo on Monday, that an early decision would benefit the team although he will be given a couple of extra days.
"Dale has been progressing all week. He has bowled in Cape Town and we'll assess how things go," Smith said. "I wouldn't like to drag it onto the morning of the Test. Him pulling up as stiff as he did on the morning of game was a surprise to all of us and hopefully this time we can have a decision made the night before at least."
While Steyn's injury is the most significant ahead of this Test, Jacques Kallis may not play a full role with the ball as he continues a cautious return from his rib injury. Kallis bowled three gentle overs in the second innings at Centurion, but he won't be pushed too hard with the New Year's Test at Newlands following quickly.
Despite these problems, there is a confidence around the South African camp after pushing England so close to defeat in the opening clash. It was their first Test since March and the way they slotted back into five-day mode has impressed Smith. He was also happy to play a few mind-games before the battle resumes at Kingsmead, pointing out the problems England have to confront.
"We've probably given them a few question marks, especially over the batting line-up," Smith said. "When you collapse like that it always leaves a negative taste and I think we have left them with things to think about. Over the five days we performed really well and they can look at a couple of sessions where they had control. It's about bringing that into this game now and carrying on that strong-headed style of play."
However, Smith won't be surprised if he faces an unchanged England side and believes they are more comfortable with a safety-first option of playing all the batsmen. "I think the six batters route is something they seem to be sticking by," he said. "I think for them it's probably a slightly more conservative outlook after the way their middle order was troubled in both innings and that they need the extra batting. Certainly it's an area we'll be looking at and if we can get a few wickets we can exploit that middle order."
The conditions in Durban are a huge contrast from Centurion, where the dry heat of the highveld has been replaced by the humidity of the coast. It is an atmosphere ideal for swing bowling and England's batting line-up know that, even if Steyn is ruled out, his understudy is a more than capable replacement.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo