SA v India, 1st Test, Johannesburg, 5th day December 22, 2013

Smith defends safety-first tactics

South Africa's captain supports Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn's decision to play it safe, in the face of criticism from the crowd and former players

'India didn't show enough desire to win' - Smith

The Wanderers crowd are an unforgiving lot. Even though they did not fill the stadium once - with work commitments, holiday season and threatening weather keeping them away - they made their voices heard when Dale Steyn sent Vernon Philander back in the third-last over of the day and when Philander returned the favour in the next one.

Loud boos echoed around the ground for every refused run. South Africa had 16 to get off the last three overs and had shut shop. The fans were asking why.

Graeme Smith explained the decision was made by the two batsmen at the crease and was not a team order. They considered who South Africa had left to bat and made their decision based on that.

"Ultimately the guys out in the middle, what they thought was in the best interest of the team," Smith explained. "Morne [Morkel] struggling to stand really. And Immy [Imran Tahir] - he would probably say himself that you are not too sure what you are going to get from Immy. I think we as a team have to support the decision Dale and Vernon made in the middle."

Smith said, at that stage, no messages went out to Philander or Steyn. "You can't send out messages between overs. That is not allowed," he said, but confirmed Steyn had gone out with some instructions. "The message was to set it up for the last over. Then there were a couple of maidens bowled, which made it difficult. I think ultimately we needed to give Vernon an opportunity to win us the game. I think he was the guy that probably would have done that. It never happened," Smith said.

"Ultimately the strength of this team is that there are good decision makers. Each guy is mature. They've made great decisions over a period of time which have won cricket games for South Africa. I think that's how we have got to No. 1 - by trusting each other and trusting each others' decision making. Dale and Vernon have 100% support from me."

When asked if being eight runs away from history left Smith gutted, he held his line. "Guys, if you want me to say that I disagree with what Dale and Vernon did, I am not going to say that," he said. "I think I have answered that question enough today. I think I have covered that."

South Africa's decision not to chase victory came under scrutiny from more than just the few thousand people in the stadium. Herschelle Gibbs, who tweeted that it would be a "bigger victory than the 438 game" during the last hour thinking South Africa had won, corrected himself when he realised they were still batting. "I'd rather go down going for a win than a draw," he posed, following it up with "As in life, no point going down wondering."

Johan Botha also thought South Africa were in with a chance, although his approach was more measured. He tweeted. "Game on!! Watching from Hobart. Get it down to around 50 only four or five down, then a big chance." South Africa needed 56 to win when AB de Villiers chopped Ishant Sharma on to leave them five down.

By that stage, du Plessis confirmed he was looking at survival first and if he was there in the last five overs, he would have gone for it. He was there until there were three overs left and that was when South Africa shut shop. Smith explained it as being partly due to so much being at stake in the first Test, because the series was so short. "In a two-Test series, with one match to go, there is an opportunity to go and win the series in Durban. We have to believe in the decision that Dale and Vernon made," he said.

It was also, he said, a fitting response to a game in which South Africa had been playing catch-up for most part and didn't think they would win. "Even at lunch today I don't think we believed we will get as close as we did. We were just playing. That was our chat this morning. To make sure we build a partnership. We knew, to save the game we would have to have a session without losing wickets. We got that after lunch. We played it beautifully," he said.

"From day two we have been behind the game. I don't think many people gave us a chance to be in this position. As a team, we showed the mental strength and the ability to handle pressure and the ability to understand what needs to be done.

"We saw two of the greatest innings played in recent history. I think we need to appreciate the effort. I hope people through the emotion of wanting more always can see and respect the efforts that the team has certainly put in. We fought hard, and were able to show enough skill to get something out of this game. The fact that everyone is talking about Test cricket, the fact that everyone is talking about this game, is wonderful for the game of cricket. It will certainly go down as one of the great games."

With that in mind and the knowledge that South Africa's fighting draw in Adelaide eventually led to them winning the next Test in Perth and Smith alluded to them doing the same here. Durban is somewhat of a hoodoo venue of them - they have lost their last four Tests at Kingsmead - so to go there with a chance of still winning, rather than drawing the series, was important.

One person who recognised that was Iain O'Brien, the former New Zealand fast bowler, who believed South Africa took the right approach. "For me, SA did the right thing," he tweeted. "They were amazing to NOT lose that Test. Special draw for SA. Demoralising one for India. Epic cricket."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent