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January 2, 2010
The most important sporting event this year for the country of South Africa starts in June, but for the cricket team the next five days are what matters. Defeat at Newlands is an unthinkable prospect as it would mean back-to-back series defeats on home soil and that is not the record of a team that wants to dominate the world stage.
Since the heavy loss in Durban the hosts have insisted that there isn't a need to panic, but the feeling is growing that a tipping point is being reached on many levels. Graeme Smith has an impressive CV as captain, but a series loss to England would be a major blot. The same is true for coach Mickey Arthur, whose relationship with Mike Procter, the convenor of selectors, has been under the microscope for some time.
Smith has overseen the departures of two England captains - Nasser Hussain in 2003 and Michael Vaughan 2008 - so it would be a twist of fate if roles were reversed. However, he is the safest of the main men when it comes to his position, partly because he is a strong figure and commands respect, but also because there are no obvious candidates to replace him. That is not the case for Arthur or Procter and they are the two who will be increasingly nervous should South Africa's poor form continue into the New Year.
"We've had many, many important Test matches. But obviously being one down in the series so far, this is a crucial one," Smith said. "As a team we have prepared well and it's about following those processes over the next five days. There will be times when the game is on the line, but let's hope we can manage those breaking points better than England."
Despite winning just a single Test in 2009, Smith remains comfortable in his role and is confident that he still has the backing of the team. "No doubt about that, if I didn't I would walk away," he said. "I've been a part of seeing two England captains walk away so I've had a lot of experience of looking at things. I'm very comfortable, but if someone felt differently then so be it and we look to extend our careers in other ways.
"You constantly reassess your position as captain, even through the good times I have reassessed whether I'm the right man for the job. From a personal perspective I'm pretty relaxed about that, I'm pretty comfortable with what I've achieved."
Smith can draw on past experiences of hauling his team back from behind in a Test series at home. India, in 2006-07, and West Indies in 2007-08 each took a surprise early advantage before the home side fought back with consecutive victories. Coupled with South Africa's impressive Newlands record it means the home side can't be underestimated, but Smith knows there are no room for mistakes.
"We're ready for tomorrow. We were outplayed in Durban but we've been honest about that, had a look in the mirror and guys have trained and prepared well," he said. "It's a ground where we've got a lot of confidence and we want to build on that now in the next five days.
"Sometimes it's difficult to put your finger on the little thing that's missing. It's been disappointing that we haven't been able to produce. Our style of play hasn't changed. But the players maybe haven't produced the level of performance of the previous two years. It's important we get back to that now, starting tomorrow."
Dale Steyn should be more of a threat in this game after putting 34 overs under his belt in Durban in his first match back from injury. However, he will need to lead from the front and show why he is ranked as the leading bowler in the world. It's time for South Africa's match-winners to stand up.
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