'They played better than us' - Smith
South Africa have now lost four of their last seven home Tests, and the pressure is well and truly on Graeme Smith, whose woes with the bat have contributed in part to the miserable sequence of results. After losing with more than five sessions to spare against an unfancied Indian side, he admitted that his team had been comprehensively outplayed, with India's bowlers outperforming a highly-rated South African pace attack.
"I think they probably got too many runs in the first innings," said a subdued Smith, speaking to the media after the game. "The wicket played quite slow on day one but it quickened up quite a lot on day two. But for us to get bowled out for what we did was obviously not good enough. Credit to them, they got the ball in the right areas and created chances consistently. They were a lot more precise than us the whole Test match. We did get the highest total of the game in the fourth innings but all credit to India. They have got their first win and congratulations to them."
He denied that complacency had played its part in his team's defeat, and said that the Test side had a long way to go to match the standards set by their one-day counterparts. "I think they were pretty hungry in this Test match," he said. "Mentally, I think they got a little more experience in their line-up, especially in their middle-order, which probably helped them a little bit. We have had a slight dynamic change in our Test side.
"Our one-day team is a pretty confident outfit. We have performed well over two years, and got a lot of good characters in there. Our Test team is in some ways an emerging team. We've got to do a lot of work in certain phases and make sure that mentally, we are a lot stronger."
The pain of defeat would no doubt have been intensified by his inability to contribute with the bat. Scores of 5 and 10 here took his tally for the last 10 Tests to 465 at 24.47, with just two half-centuries in 19 trips to the middle. "It's hurtful to all of us," said Smith. "Not so much because it's India's first win, but the way we performed was very disappointing for all of us. I think that's what hurts the most, we let ourselves down.
"We never quite hit the straps in any department of the game and that was a bit disappointing. I think we can improve a hell of a lot going into Durban. Sitting down in the dressing room and having a chat now, the guys all know what's required of them."
According to him, the South Africans hadn't got the pitch they asked for, though he added that it couldn't be used as an excuse for the 123-run defeat. "I don't think we got the kind of track we wanted but I don't want to sit up here and moan about it and use it as an excuse," he said. "I think that's an easy cop out. We're always looking for good cricket wickets. South Africa is known for pace and bounce. That must be the challenge of touring South Africa. The wicket wasn't a great one but probably boded well for a good Test match."
His batsmen lasted just 25.1 overs in the first innings, and though there were a couple of doughty knocks at the second time of asking, the match had already slipped away. "I don't think it was the easiest wicket to bat on," said Smith. "I think the new ball was a very difficult time to bat. From there on in, for about 35 to 40 overs, it got a little easier as the ball got a little softer. But when it was hard, both teams were three or four down pretty quickly. I guess that was probably the main reason. We need a little more application, a little more grafting in the next Test match. We need to get ourselves in and maybe grind a little bit harder."
He went on the defensive when pressed about the top-order frailty that was evident in the one-day matches as well. "So is the Indian top order," he said, when asked why his top six were struggling. "Both teams have got to look into that, both teams have struggled in this game. The last five or six Test matches that we have played, especially in South Africa, the wickets have been hard to bat on. But that's not an excuse. We've got to get away and work hard."
Sreesanth was India's standout bowler, with match figures of 8 for 99, and Smith was lavish with his praise. "He bowled well, he hit the best areas in the game. He swung the ball from a straight line, which is always very difficult to play. I think his seam action is pretty good. He ran in hard and has a lot of energy. All credit to him. He really bowled superbly throughout the game, and deserves his success."
Sreesanth also irked the South Africans with the odd aside and gesture, but for Smith, it wasn't really an issue. "I don't think the aggression bothers us," he said. "We've played against a lot of aggressive outfits in the past and that's something we are used to. Guys who have played international cricket for a lot of years now are pretty battle-hardened.
"They played better than us and that's the simple fact of it - they were more precise, they hit better areas with the ball. Their back-end partnership got them to a decent total in the first innings. There were a lot of little things but in general, they were a little bit more hungry than us."
|I don't think I've ever seen it [Sreesanth's jig] on a cricket field though. We all love characters in the game, I'm one that has always encouraged them. It's important to have them. It brings people into the stadiums and makes the game exciting to watch. But I think it's all got to be within reason. Maybe he did push the buttons a little bit there|
Sreesanth's comical celebration of a straight six off Andre Nel elicited a rare smile from Smith. "It was a funny moment," he said. "I don't think I've ever seen it on a cricket field though. We all love characters in the game, I'm one that has always encouraged them. It's important to have them. It brings people into the stadiums and makes the game exciting to watch. But I think it's all got to be within reason. Maybe he did push the buttons a little bit there."
His own quick bowler, Dale Steyn, ended up bowling just 10.1 overs before limping off with a quadriceps strain. "It obviously hurt us a bit in the bowling department," said Smith. "The workload increased a bit on the others, and probably made us a little too similar. Macky [Makhaya Ntini] wasn't at his best in this Test match, so you probably lost a bit of variety.
"And getting into the tail, you need someone who can bowl at 150 km/h. We're going to see how he recovers, and make a decision going into Durban whether he is fit enough to compete there."
There were plaudits too for Sourav Ganguly, who marked his return to the Test side with innings of 51 not out and 25. "After being out of the game for as long as he has, we expected him to come in and really want to do well," he said. "We didn't expect him to come in and give us anything. He and Laxman at five and six provided a lot of stability and experience and confidence, especially with them also three or four down early on. That experience has really helped India. Maybe they were a bit soft there in the one-day series."
Ganguly's 44-run final-wicket partnership with VRV Singh was also key in the context of the match. "Those runs were obviously massive in terms of the scores that were scored in the game," said Smith. "That partnership obviously gave them some confidence and momentum going into the bowling, and they then backed it up superbly with the new ball."
His opening partnership with Herschelle Gibbs is now well and truly under the scanner - Gibbs made a pair here - and Smith accepted that a change might be on the cards. "I know the selectors have been in some discussion, we just need to see what they come up with," he said. "But the team knows that we have to take our pain from this defeat. There will be a lot of criticism over the next few days and we are honest enough with ourselves to stand up and say that we messed up this one."
There has been considerable criticism in the South African media over the team's preparation for this game, with the players skipping franchise games while India played a warm-up in Potchefstroom. "When you lose a Test match like this, you can look back and say that we should have prepared more," said Smith. "That's going to be the criticism, and we've got to look back at those things, learn from them and move forward. "We'll probably be arriving a little bit early in Durban."
A week ago, they might have expected to wrap up the series at Kingsmead. Now, after this stunning defeat, Smith and his men face a battle for survival.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo