South Africa v India, 4th ODI, Port Elizabeth January 20, 2011

Smith aims to win key moments

Weakness against spin, two collapses and losing the key moments - these are the key issues that have dogged South Africa in their last two ODI defeats against India

In both their close defeats of the last week, South Africa can identify common failings that they desperately need to work on. The two collapses in Johannesburg and Cape Town are the obvious ones, as are losing key moments. The way the Indian lower order finished off the tight chase in Cape Town was in contrast to how the South African batsmen froze in Johannesburg.

The less obvious problem that South Africa had, and one that should concern them given they are playing at home, is how they struggled against the spinners. In the previous two games, they managed only 167 runs in 42 overs of spin. Only 19 of those overs were bowled by India's specialist spinner, Harbhajan Singh, off whom they scored only two boundaries in two games.

All these will be termed by many as South Africa's traditional problems, much to their dislike. Not only to stay alive in this series, on what is usually the slowest pitch in the country, but also in the World Cup to come, they will have to overcome their troubles against spin, and their habit of not winning tight games.

Graeme Smith chose to focus on the issue of losing key moments, rather than the spin problem, on the eve of the must-win game. "Harbhajan has bowled extremely well," Smith said. "The nature of the wickets also [has played a part], they haven't been easy to bat on. India, too, have struggled to bat on those wickets.

"I thought if we could have got 20 more runs [it would have made the difference] ... we were well set up to get those 20 more runs … [but] the disappointing thing for me is that we have [lost] 5 for 30 and 6 for 20 in our last two games. If you probably take that out of our game, we would probably be 3-0 up. Otherwise, we have played decent enough cricket throughout the vast majority of the games. We just haven't handled those moments where we needed to kick on or make the right decisions well. Those are the lessons that we can learn, and hopefully we can come out tomorrow and play with a good spirit and get those things right."

Smith also hinted that the announcement of the World Cup squad, which was always around the corner, might have had a thing or two to do with the younger players being slightly tense. "Now that the World Cup squad is announced, the tension has kind of lifted on the players and the way they play the game, so hopefully tomorrow we can play with a bit more freedom."

Smith said it was better for the young side to lose now and learn its lessons rather than experience it in bigger events. "Losing is never a nice thing, but there are some important lessons for us in the last two games," he said. "It's a good time for us to learn from those lessons now - take those lessons forward, keep a good positive and attacking frame of mind."

Smith looked more relaxed than he has done during press conferences on this tour so far, even though rain on the eve of the match meant his side couldn't train at the ground. That should hardly make a difference, though, because teams play so much these days that they don't need switching on before every game, especially at the fag end of a tour.

South Africa can draw confidence from playing in Port Elizabeth, where the side often gets strong and vocal support from the crowd. "PE fans in particular are great supporters of the team," Smith said. "We have got some of the most vibrant crowds in the country here; the guys really do enjoy playing here. The Warriors have been very successful at their home ground over the last period of time, and to have Lopsy [Lonwabo Tsotsobe], Colin [Ingram] and Johan [Botha] with their knowledge of the ground is crucial. We will certainly tap in to that."

It is a proud record that South Africa need to defend. They have never lost a home ODI series to teams other than Australia and England. Before the start of the series, they had lost to India at home only on three occasions. The tally could be doubled and South Africa will have to prevent that to keep the series alive. "It's exciting, it's an opportunity to perform," Smith said. "I don't think it's a time where you look at it and say, 'I have to perform tomorrow, I have to make a difference.' There will be 11 of us on the field tomorrow, and we have got to trust each other that each of us will perform our roles and we have got to be good enough to get us over the line."

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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