South Africa v Australia, 2nd Test, Port Elizabeth February 19, 2014

Air of discontent around South Africa

It has been a tricky few days for South African cricket, and not just because of Mitchell Johnson. They have come from behind many times to draw or win Test series and, on what promises to be a lively pitch, must do so again

There is something heavy in the Port Elizabeth air and it is not just the humidity. Although the mugginess has reached levels around 85% since the beginning of the week, it is the atmosphere around the South African camp that is loaded with concerns ahead of a Test match they must win if they are to become the first team since readmission to win a series against Australia at home.

That burden would be tough enough to bear on its own and South Africa have not got that lucky. Apart from a lack of competitive cricket ahead of the series, which Graeme Smith once again lamented in his pre-match press conference, this week has been particularly wearing for them. It has been riddled with miscommunication over the availability of their new No.7, bad news for two other members of their current squad who discovered mid-series they are no longer centrally contracted and hype over the Port Elizabeth pitch, which up until yesterday had so much grass on it, it scared its own groundsman. And that is before even thinking of Mitchell Johnson.

All that sounds like a tangled knot so let us unscramble it from the first loose end. Ryan McLaren was hit on the head on Saturday. He spent Sunday night in hospital and it then became apparent that he would not be available for the second Test. On Monday, national coach Russell Domingo and convener of selectors Andrew Hudson announced the World Twenty20 squad in Johannesburg and Hudson was specifically questions about the Test team's performance.

Although Hudson confirmed the No.7 spot was still a point of debate, he did not in any way suggest McLaren could not be considered. In fact, the impression created was that McLaren was as much in contention as any other player. It was only early on Tuesday morning that McLaren was officially ruled out, narrowing the choice to Wayne Parnell, Dean Elgar, Rory Kleinveldt or Thami Tsolekile.

McLaren, at least, got luckier than either Elgar or Tsolekile who found out mid-series that their national contracts will not be renewed for the 2014-15 season. While Tsolekile has not played a game for South Africa since being contracted two seasons ago as the successor to Mark Boucher and has now lost ground to Quinton de Kock in that department, Elgar, who is the only spare specialist batsman in the current Test squad, could be on the verge of a recall.

Given Elgar bagged a pair on Test debut in Perth and dropped David Warner, who went on to score a hundred, when on as a substitute fielder in Centurion, Elgar's confidence against Australia is not exactly soaring. This could only add to it.

Contracts are usually announced around this time in February but it may have been wiser for CSA to wait until South Africa were in a better position in the series or finished with it completely. Smith admitted the timing was not ideal and the players involved will have to be treated with a little more care from him.

"It's obviously tough. I guess my role is just to help keep them focused on what is important and that is tomorrow," he said. "If they get the opportunity to play then that's a chance for them to put that right and to show people that they're worthy. So my job is to help keep them focused. It's obviously another curveball that's tough to deal with, but we've just got to find a way really."

For Tsolekile and Elgar the news is not good but for others, especially those who may have been concerned about keeping their spots, the contract list will come as some relief. Robin Peterson could be one of them, as could Alviro Petersen.

Petersen's middling form has increased calls for South Africa to look for another partner for Smith but it seems that they have had to put that on the backburner for now. Smith said it was "unlikely," he would walk out to bat with someone else at St George's Park. "Alviro had a decent Indian tour on tough wickets," he said, referring to the two half-centuries Petersen raised his bat to in December. "He has been around for a period of time and he knows his game. I expect him to bounce back."

Smith expects that from all of his players and for them to do that he believes they need to treat this match the way other captains may tell their team to approach an away game: by adapting to conditions. South Africa, deserved No.1s that they are, should be able to play on all their home grounds like they own them yet they still talk about them as though they are property of someone else and it seems that is because they are.

Even though groundsman Adrian Carter said he would wait for instruction from Domingo and the South African camp before deciding how much grass to take off the pitch, Smith indicated the home side had minimal influence on the type of surface this match will be played on. "I find that when you ask for things you generally don't get them," he said.

Carter gave the pitch a mow mid-morning on Wednesday and may yet take more grass off it before the match. Whether he will do so on South Africa's request or his knowledge of whether he needs a covering to avoid having it break up too early is not known but Smith hinted it would be the latter. "He knows this pitch better than anyone else."

And South Africa know who they will have to face on it. Johnson winded them in a way no one has done since the last time he did it himself five years ago and in between wading through these other issues they have had to think about a plan for a counterattack. That is where Smith believes they could be at their best, because he has seen them bounce back from slow starts in the past.

"Maybe we just don't like to throw the first punch," he said. "We've got to know how to respond and that's where experience plays a big role. This week is about not carrying too much baggage from Centurion."

He is right about that. South Africa cannot afford excess at all; their load is heavy enough already.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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