'We'll be looking for some big performances' - Smith
Graeme Smith had recovered sufficiently from a bout of food poisoning to be able to joke about it - "Don't eat the fish in Cape Town," he said - but both he and his team were bristling with determination to reverse the result of their last home series, when Ricky Ponting's Australia handed out a 3-0 cricketing lesson. Smith refuses to write off the Indians, but suggested that he had the quality at his disposal to inflict serious damage on a pitch that's expected to favour the seam bowlers from the outset.
"I think they'd be hoping to bounce back," he said, when asked about the Indians after a morning training session. "They also had a game in between [at Potchefstroom]. They'll be well-prepared, and hope to catch us off guard. We're confident though that we can carry on as we did in the one-day series. We're pretty focussed. Some new guys have come back in, who didn't play the one-day games. There's a lot of hunger around, and we'll be looking for some big performances."
India have some big names of their own, and Smith made it amply clear that they would be singled out for special treatment once the game commenced at 10am on Friday. "India have world class performers with fantastic records. There are some guys in our side who have knocked over big names all across the world, against every side, and will be looking to do it again."
He was especially confident that his pace battery could prey on the minds of an Indian line-up that performed way below par in the one-day games. "They've been bowling at real pace and hitting the areas," he said, after having played through the net session. "There's plenty of variety in the attack, and it bodes well for the game. In the one-day matches, we bowled the right lines and in the channels and it paid off."
The only real change on the bowling side of things is the inclusion of Dale Steyn, whose electrifying pace jolted India at Benoni a month ago. "He adds a new dimension," said Smith. "Nella [Andre Nel] has been hitting 140 [km/h] and so's Makhaya [Ntini]. Dale's up at 150. We plan to use him in short bursts. He gets it to swing up front at pace, and that's a huge asset. He's just come back from quadriceps strain, and is raring to go."
Steyn will share the new ball with Ntini, and the pitch, with cracks running right through it, will come in for considerable scrutiny. "I've seen worse cracks here at the Wanderers," said Smith, who didn't sound particularly perturbed. "The pitch looks pretty good. But with all the heat around, the cracks will play a role, as in any Test. The wickets here have always been pretty good, with pace and bounce. There's good carry, and you stand well back in the slips."
The South Africans elected not to play for the franchises after the one-day series got over, but Smith said that there had been no complacency when it came to preparation. "Most of the guys have worked individually during the break," he said. "I worked with Gary [Kirsten], and we've had two very good sessions here. The new ball might do a bit. Both attacks bowled well in the one-day series, especially with the new ball. It's just up to the batsmen to apply themselves."
Rahul Dravid had spoken of how the lowered expectations from his team might benefit them in a positive way, but Smith scoffed at the idea. "I've toured India three times now, and never seen a situation where's there's no expectation from the Indian team [smile]," he said. "You can't get away from it. It's in your face, the demand for results. There are also your demands on yourself, both as a team and as individuals."
He was candid when asked about the return of Sourav Ganguly, though he indicated that India's former captain shouldn't expect an easy ride. "I said from start that Sourav's record speaks for itself, in both forms of the game," he said. "There was just a big question mark over how he would fit in after all that has happened. We have our gameplans for him, and we'll be looking to execute them well. But he does bring a hardness and a fighting spirit to their middle order."
There was also little doubt in his mind about the danger posed by another of India's old guard. "A bowler of his class will always play a role," he said when asked about Anil Kumble. "Most of us have played against him a few times, and know what he's capable of. He takes large-wicket hauls, and is much respected in our team. We won't take him lightly."
He did suggest though that Kumble would face batsmen intent on going after him, with AB de Villiers likely to be asked to reprise his performances against Muttiah Muralitharan. "We were pretty aggressive against the spinners in the one-day games," said Smith. "Harbhajan [Singh] went for nearly 50 in every game. The match situation dictates what you do though. We try and play a positive brand of cricket. Our mindset is more attacking."
If the cracks widen as the game stretches on, Smith himself may have to do some bowling, with no specialist spinner in the ranks. "I've been feeling pretty good with the ball," he said with a self-deprecating laugh. "It will be difficult to play our seam attack. Most batsmen can deal with sideways movement, but when it starts to get up and down [the bounce], that's hard to deal with. The first three days will be crucial in setting up the game. But if I need to bowl, I will."
At a venue that he loves, one where he says the atmosphere can be absolutely inspiring, he'll be hoping that it doesn't come to that.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo