South Africa v India, 1st Test, Johannesburg, 3rd day December 20, 2013

Smith runs out of options and ideas

With Morne Morkel out of action and Imran Tahir misfiring, South Africa's captain endured a difficult juggle with limited resources

Match Point: 'Can't understand Smith's tactics'

It took a few seconds and some eye-rubbing to realise which South African was assigned to bowl the over before tea. AB de Villiers. As if that wasn't astounding enough, there was the sight of Hashim Amla strapping on the wicketkeepers' pads and gloves to take in. It really happened.

Such sights are not all that unusual. When things are trundling along and not much is happening, a captain has to try something different to catch the opposition off-guard. Graeme Smith did it in Dubai when he brought Dean Elgar on to bowl to a Pakistan partnership that had racked up 197. Misbah-ul-Haq tried to slog him into the next Emirate and was caught at slip. Concentration can lapse, mistakes can happen.

The difference between that day and this one was in the message, as Daryll Cullinan explained on the tea-time Match Point show on this website. Elgar is a part-time spinner with 33 first-class wickets and does turn his arm over on occasion. De Villiers, before this one, had only bowled 38 overs in his decade-long first-class career, and last bowled in a Test match seven years ago. And it's not as though Smith didn't have other options.

Apart from JP Duminy, who had not bowled a ball at that stage, there was Faf du Plessis, who bowls occasionally, or Smith himself. In hindsight, he probably turned to de Villiers for a little bit of fun but with India 140 runs ahead with eight wickets in hand, it may not have been the ideal time for a laugh. By stumps, it turned out South Africa would have little reason for giggles of any description, as they appeared bereft of ideas.

Their day had already threatened to be difficult in the over before lunch when Morne Morkel was helped off the field after hurting his ankle. He had only bowled two overs before that but the signs were obvious that he would have an important role to play. In the 12 balls he bowled, he generated steep bounce, which could have helped keep India quiet. With him out of the equation, someone else had to do that job.

The person should have been Imran Tahir. Although he is a naturally attacking bowler, Tahir had to contain as well. His first ball today was evidence he could not.

Tahir offered a full toss first up and leaked runs in a manner somewhat reminiscent of his performance in Adelaide in November 2012, particularly when he dropped Cheteshwar Pujara on 51 off his own bowling. His confidence seemed to dip after that, and his bouquet of overpitched deliveries and full tosses became rosier. Selection-wise, South Africa may be wondering if they erred by picking Tahir, considering the opposition.

The Indian line-up is confident and comfortable against legspin and with Tahir's history of over-enthusiasm leading to lack of control, they may ask themselves if a conservative option would have worked better. Robin Peterson was in the squad and could have played the holding role or they could have opted for another seamer, with Duminy operating as the spinner, although today's evidence may contradict that.

Besides offering little threat, which is not Duminy's primary role, he also could not keep his end quiet. Smith had no choice but to use him for parts of the day as a stop-gap to avoid over-bowling the three seamers he had left.

Already, Jacques Kallis' workload was more than ideal. His usual quota had previously been described as 10-12 overs a day but he had to bowl 14. He used the short ball well and attacked the stumps to produce two lbw shouts, but he seemed to lose bite later on.

The same could be said of Dale Steyn, who had a rare wicketless day. As Vernon Philander pointed out, "he did not bowl badly"; he just didn't find any swing. Steyn cannot be expected to produce in every innings and Philander said he could easily "rock up and take five tomorrow," but it was obvious what a misfiring Steyn and an injured Morkel can do to South Africa's morale.

Philander did his part in leading the attack. He was South Africa's best bowler on the day and in his first two spells looked as though he would take a wicket every other ball. He got good bounce, he beat the bat, he moved the ball just enough to create tension. Most importantly, he zoned in consistently on an off-stump target.

That was the main difference between the South African and Indian bowlers and Philander recognised it. "They attacked the stumps all the time. We didn't do that well, even in the first innings," he said. Despite Philander being the person who was doing that, he was used less than he could have been.

After spells of five, two and five overs in the first 33 overs of India's innings, he returned for two spells of three overs each, with long breaks in between. He was nursing a toothache and is still in some discomfort, which may have prompted Smith to use him sparingly, although he indicated he was ready for a bigger workload. "We knew when Morne went down, we would have to bowl a bit more," he said. "Luckily I am not in Graeme's shoes at the moment."

South Africa fought back after a middling first day and Philander believed they can do it again. But they will need a sharper plan this time, against batsmen who have adjusted and thrived in these conditions. "They left very well when they came in and the spinners were whom they attacked," he said. "Then they made the seamers come back on when they were tired."

That means it will be up to Tahir to find a way to contain so the quicks can attack and South Africa can embark on some form of damage limitation. "There is not a lot of turn on offer but hopefully he [Tahir] will get a plan together sometime soon," Philander said.

Playing an 11-a-side game with ten men is tough. Trying to do it with nine is tougher. That is essentially what Smith was left to work with. If South Africa are to salvage something from this bowling performance and give their batsmen a chance to save the game, he either cannot be left in that position again or has to learn to manage it better.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent