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January 13, 2010
The next five days will give an indication of whether South Africa can recapture the form that took them to the top of the world rankings. A draw against England, who they were expected to dominate, will still be an underachievement but at least victory at the Wanderers would lift spirits ahead of a tough trip to India, the team who took their No. 1 crown.
South Africa's loss of form since they beat Australia down under has meant Graeme Smith has frequently had to respond to questions about his team's position. Each time he has defended his players and believes they have it in them to reach those levels again. Although he didn't say it, the hosts are still actually trying to work out how they are behind in what Smith termed "an epic series."
"It's fair to say we haven't reached those heights," he said. "When teams are so close it's often the little things that matter in the big series and in the past we won those moments, but in this series we haven't. It's been a touch disappointing but we have played some good cricket. Tomorrow we have the chance to start retaining the trophy if we play well. That's the goal for us.
"In two out of three Tests we have come close, we have just lacked the final blow on the last day. You have to give credit to England's resilience that they have shown; when they've been put under pressure they have handled it well. We've had good chats about taking us to another level and we haven't really hit those heights after 2008. But the potential is still there and we need to find a way of hitting that point."
Smith wouldn't concede that it had been mentally frailties or the pressure of playing at home which has seen South Africa pull up short of the winning line in recent matches and said it was down to the players to dig deeper. "We need to find a way to extract a bit more out of the players to enable the team to reach its potential."
Regardless of the outcome in Johannesburg this has been another South Africa-England contest that has enthralled throughout. Since readmission there hasn't been a dull series between the two teams and England's battling qualities have come as no surprise to Smith, even though the home side were very bullish before the tour began.
"I've never played against England in an easy series," he said. "Hanging on for two nine-down draws has made an epic series in many ways and people have really enjoyed watching.
"It's been great to be a part of it and we want our bit of victory in the next five days. It's been great for cricket and having competitive teams play against each other really brings out the best in people."
While England have had the luxury of being able to name an unchanged team throughout - something that is set to continue for the final Test - South Africa have had injury problems this season. The latest is the loss of Friedel de Wet to a long-term back injury which means Wayne Parnell, the left-arm quick, is set for his debut.
Parnell has already impressed during his one-day and Twenty20 appearances and some South African commentators believe he should have started this series while Robert Key, who captained him during a stint with Kent, has said he could become the new Wasim Akram. However, Smith was quick to calm the expectations over his raw quick.
"He's pretty inexperienced at first-class level so it will be interesting to see how he goes," he said. "He's had a taste of international cricket in the shorter format and maybe his youthful exuberance is something he can bring. It will be a big challenge for him and the expectation shouldn't be that he will walk in and knock over seven tomorrow."
The home team have been at pains to point out they will play an attacking brand of cricket as they aim to save the series, but Smith doesn't want them to get carried away. "I disagree with the terms like gamble that have been thrown around, it is about getting your basics right," he said. "A good, positive mindset is crucial and we've spoken long and hard about that. The guys are really motivated."