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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dhairy on December 24, 2013, 11:22 GMT

    Two reason of bad 4th Innings bowling. 1))Bad spin bowling as duminy-tahir both gone for 2-2 wickets each & aswin hadn't take least one. We can believe he hadn't bowled bad but true thing is that he couldn't find a wicket against not so well spin players. # Change him with Jadeja. Better batsman & better bowler according to condition. 2)) Bad use of new ball in both Innings. we produced only 1 wicket between early overs of all 3 new ball.Bad Zaheer who Leaked runs at 4.25/over in 2nd inning & taken only 1 wicket because of bad dicition. #change him with Bhuvi. He always use new ball batter than all others. Try him in atleast 1 away test. He just put out by 1 bad performene in 1st ODI.

  • Harsh on December 24, 2013, 10:08 GMT

    To me we were deprived of a classic finish and probably a sensational win by the Proteas playing for a draw in the end.It was like an epic Holywood thriller with an incredible twist to the tale but ending in an anti-climax.Du Plessis just failed to hit the final nail in the coffin and the finish ideally proves what nerves are all bout in sport.In the circumstances I would have backed a team like Australia at it's best to complete the run -chase.

  • Harsh on December 24, 2013, 10:03 GMT

    South Africa should have gone for a win.If they had accomplished it it would have been a victory for test cricket.After being on the verge of defeat the Proteas turned the tables by coming to the doorstep of the greatest 4th innings winning run -chase ever in a test match.They were coasting home when Du Plessis was batting with A.B.Devilliers.

    Calling the shutters to me was against against the spirit of the game and was an anti-climax to a test match which had the twists and turns of a Hollywood thriller.Inspite of India's heroics for 4 days I wish South Africa had won after their incredible recovery on the final day.

  • carl on December 24, 2013, 1:47 GMT

    2 tests, is this really a series? SAF may well go on to win this 'series' but its one dimensional thinking that has cost them past glory despite their skill

  • Dummy4 on December 23, 2013, 20:19 GMT

    Very unconvincing explanation by Smith. CSA will never ever win T20 and ODI, those formats require gutsy decisions and they lack guts.

  • Asim on December 23, 2013, 19:37 GMT

    Surprising to see Indians commenting that SA choked. It is India who is at loss after this draw. Until Tea India were the favorites for over 4 and half days and 9 sessions. Only in last hour SA looked like having some outside chance of winning. Smith hit bulls eye that any team in the world should win test match 460 on board and 135 overs up in sleeve except India with over rated spinner in shape of Ashwin. Remember all seven wickets in SA second innings were as a result of misfortune simply and nothing brilliance from bowlers

  • Shreenaguesh on December 23, 2013, 16:36 GMT

    South Africans tried to psyche India out of the Test with talk, before the Test and did not succeed on the field when India took the 1st innings lead.. I think they should have won it quite easily in the end...They most certainly choked... To now come out and say India should have won and try psychological warfare prior to the 2nd Test, makes no sense.

  • Dummy4 on December 23, 2013, 16:30 GMT

    Marvellous cricket and a credit to both teams. High quality skills, technique, courage, wit, determination, strategy, captaincy, mental toughness, stamina - you name it, it had it... More of all the above in one Test match than 3 or 400 ODI's added together will ever have...

  • Hemant on December 23, 2013, 15:56 GMT

    India were missing a bowler -- seeing that Rohit did not do much in this game (dropped a sitter in the slips), Jadeja could have contributed more with his bowling and in your face attitude. He could have made India a winner in the first test.

  • raj on December 23, 2013, 14:46 GMT

    atleast philander looked he had some guts to make the winning runs. but steyn ...ha..ha...ha... "no" he says to philander again & again. big let down for fans .

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