Mickey Arthur guarded over Makhaya Ntini's fate
The next two days could determine Makhaya Ntini's international future as the paceman's Test place hangs in the balance. Mickey Arthur, the coach, confirmed South Africa are set to make changes to the side that was hammered by an innings and 98 runs at Durban and didn't stop short of suggesting that the pressure on the fast bowler was huge.
"We've got to look and see which team is going to give us a really good batting platform and which our best option is to take 20 wickets," Arthur said. "We'll sum that up when we look at conditions and there are going to be some tough decisions to be made. Whether it's one change or two changes I'm not sure."
Ntini went wicketless in 29 overs at Kingsmead to follow just two scalps in the opening Test at Centurion and he was clearly targeted by the England batsmen each time he started a new spell. Such is the importance of Ntini to South African cricket that he is being given every chance to prove his worth, but claiming 13 wickets in six Tests during 2009 shows time is running out.
"Like a couple of other players he does come in under a little bit of pressure and how he works it over the next two days will be instrumental in what we see as our best attack going forward," Arthur said. "It's the same as with any icon cricketer, you tend to give them a little bit of a longer run because they have earned it.
"Makhaya has certainly earned that and I'm not for one minute saying he isn't going to play this Test. That's something we need to assess over the next two days. I guess he hasn't performed as he would have liked over the last two Tests. It's a bit too early for me to speculate on that, but again we have to look at what is our best possible attack to take 20 wickets."
Arthur said there had been "a pretty serious discussion" after the Durban defeat and knows his team desperately needs to turn their fortunes around to keep hopes of winning the series alive. "We are all under a little pressure going into this match. It certainly isn't panic stations but we asked each other a lot of questions."
While the debate around Ntini will dominate the build up, South Africa are at least taking heart from the improving form of Dale Steyn, who got through a hefty workload of 34 overs at Durban in his first match back after a hamstring injury. However, the fact that Arthur said producing a "100% effort ball" had been worrying him, it begs the question whether South Africa would have been better off sticking with Friedel de Wet.
"I thought Dale got better as he went on," Arthur said. "Perhaps he didn't bowl as many bouncers as we would have liked and that stems from the fact that the effort ball still worried him subconsciously. Perhaps we can look at the lines we bowled and maybe we needed to be a little more attacking, but again he was feeling his way back and I'm confident he is ready to go now."
Arthur also continued to have full confidence in the batting line-up despite their demise for 133 although he didn't dismiss suggestions that a little complacency is seeping in. "Sometimes you lose your edge a little bit and that's something we need to get back," he said. "I think our top six is the best top six we can put out, I back them to do the job more times that not."
However, he is also aware that they need to come up with a game plan against Graeme Swann who took nine wickets at Durban and has 14 in the first two matches. With victory a priority the hosts can't afford to sit back and let Swann dictate terms.
"He's probably on par with Daniel Vettori as one of the best finger spinners in world cricket at the moment," Arthur said. "He's really bowled exceptionally well in the first two Tests and it's up to us to counter him. Perhaps being positive is one way we can do that."
One major factor in South Africa's favour as they aim to bounce back is that Newlands is a venue where they have an enviable record. They have won 14 of the 20 Tests here since readmission, including a innings victory and a 196-run success in three matches against England.
"Maybe opposition teams get caught up in the beauty of Newlands and sample the Waterfront [an entertainment area] perhaps a little too much," Arthur joked. "It has become a fortress for us and we have played good cricket here. It does get the best out of us."
They must hope it does the trick again otherwise this series will be out of reach and more than just Ntini's future will be on the line.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo