South Africa v India, 2nd Test, Durban December 23, 2010

Durban not a happy hunting ground for South Africa

Legend has it that the Kingsmead pitch used to be so green that the only way to tell the difference between it and the outfield was by the lines painted to mark out the former. Like most things in isolated South Africa - the time when this story was born - one will never know how much truth there is to it.

After a hammering in Centurion, with enough short balls whizzing past their ears to last some of them a lifetime, the last thing the India batsmen will want to hear is that story, legend or not. Luckily for them, the facts of the matter are not quite as nightmarish. Kingsmead is known for its bounce and swing, but like anywhere else, when the sun comes out, it becomes a magic carpet for batsmen.

India can take comfort in that and South Africa's dodgy record in Durban in recent times. Since Graeme Smith took over the captaincy in 2003, South Africa have won three out of seven Tests played at Kingsmead, two of them against the West Indies. The third was in 2006 against India and was ten minutes away from being drawn.

India were chasing 354 in their second innings, a target they were highly unlikely to get to at 101 for 7. MS Dhoni scored a brave 47, but when he fell, South Africa could sniff victory. Zaheer Khan hung around, scoring 21 off 56 balls, and came close to helping India save the match. He departed with ten minutes left on the clock and it was up to Sreesanth and VRV Singh to see out the 600 seconds that would take India to confidence-boosting draw. They couldn't, and Sreesanth was caught behind to hand South Africa a 174-run win.

It is the last two defeats in Durban that have been the most demoralising. In the 2008-09 season, Australia beat South Africa by 175 runs. South Africa were inflicted with both physical and mental wounds after that defeat. On day two, Mitchell Johnson sent both Smith and Jacques Kallis to hospital within 16 overs. It was the second time in two months that Johnson broke Smith's finger and he unsettled the South Africa batting line-up by pinging Kallis on the jaw. It's no wonder even the South Africans are intimidated by Durban to some degree.

"The first thing we do when we get to Durban is to try to acclimatise to the bounce," Ashwell Prince told ESPNcricinfo. "Fortunately the nets are pretty much the same as what you get in the middle."

Last season, South Africa lost by an innings and 98 runs to England, a memory that remains fresh in Smith's mind. "We were just not good enough for the five days. They outplayed us. We didn't bowl that well, they posted a big total and we were under pressure when batting second." South Africa were not able to bowl England out once in that match and have come under criticism for not being able to take 20 wickets in the past. They'll be mindful of that as they resolve the debate around the third seamer. The general feeling is that Lonwabo Tsotsobe will stay in the role, but with Wayne Parnell being perceived as a more aggressive left-armer, South Africa have a tough selection issue on their hands.

The team's policy has usually been to stick with the man in possession, in this case Tsotsobe, but with a burning desire to not let their advantage slip in Durban, they may change their minds. Smith said South Africa have had a serious think about how to approach their hoodoo venue. "We have had a good chat of how we want to play here. Even though we haven't performed well here, there are guys with very good experience on this surface and understanding how this wicket plays and what's going to happen. If we can keep getting our skills right here in Durban and finding the right areas with the ball, knowing our game plans with the bat, and just build on our success in Centurion, then it will be tough for India."

India may be relieved to hear that Smith thinks the pitch looks different to the one that was played on against England and Australia. They'll be less relieved to hear that Smith said its "got a good grass covering; the most I've seen in Durban for a while." Still, India can take solace in knowing that it's unlikely that the painted lines won't be the only thing that will distinguish the pitch from the outfield.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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