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Firdose Moonda in Durban
December 24, 2013
For the upcoming Boxing Day Test, the Kingsmead change-rooms will be air-conditioned. Graeme Smith's face relaxed into a smile when he was told the news. "If that's the case, I hope we can spend a lot of time sitting in there," he said.
The South African team has asked for cooling equipment to be fitted into its Durban base for years. It's not an unreasonable request considering this is South Africa's warmest city with heat and humidity combining to give it a sultry tropical feel. Finally, the players are getting what they want.
Smith will hope that extends beyond the dressing room and that his team will walk away with a win from the city that has proved to be their nemesis in recent years. South Africa have lost the last four Tests they've played in Durban, with their last victory coming in January 2008 against West Indies.
Each time, defeat has come in the second match of a series and the previous two occasions, against India and Sri Lanka, have seen South Africa squander their lead. For a change, they approach Durban differently this time. There's all to play for, which may only add to the pressure. Smith, though, sees it as an opportunity.
"We haven't had the best record in Durban over a period of time and we are looking forward to putting that right," he said. "One of the reasons was that we didn't adapt to conditions in time. The surface can change every day. Day two can be difficult to bat instead of day one and overhead conditions can play a role. But then, it can get hot and it can get flat."
The Kingsmead surface had a reputation for being bouncy, but has become slower over the years. It has taken on almost subcontinental-like characteristics, and is expected to remain in that fashion. Two days before the match, the pitch looked unusually brown with a thick grass covering. That will likely be cut off before match day, and those in the know expect the pitch to be a little sluggish early on and predict it will take turn on the last two days.
Again, it may not be the kind of strip on which South Africa feel most at home and they will have to be aware of the challenges that could pose. Playing a spinner is highly advisable, but with Imran Tahir lacking control, they may have to turn to Robin Peterson, who may not be as effective on a surface that could assist turners.
One person who Smith believes will be able to make the tweaks needed to perform well at the ground, is Vernon Philander.
The new No.1 ranked bowler has never played a Test in Durban. He was injured on the one occasion South Africa turned out there since his debut, in December 2011. Then, Marchant de Lange played in his place.
Swing bowlers tend to have success in Durban but Philander, who relies on seam movement and accuracy, has managed to defy those expectations in other places. "Vernon has been the link in the attack that we've missed. Everywhere we've gone he seemed to have stood up and performed," Smith said. "People have wondered whether he would be successful in England, in sub-continent like conditions and he has."
Philander also the all-round ability and attitude which Smith believes will be needed over the next week. "It is great to see his batting has come on as well. Everyone talks about his skill but he has got a real personality, which is great for the team," Smith said. "He is always there in people's faces. He has got the skill to make something happen but he has also got the will."
Heart is the one thing South Africa have lacked in Durban over the last few years and few could put a reason on why that was the case. One theory is that the Kingsmead Test was, more often than not, the Boxing Day Test and that the festive season vibes may have detracted the players from the task at hand.
If that was the case, Smith has made sure it won't happen again by stressing the importance of putting a good performance in this traditional fixture, especially after it was cancelled last year.
"It feels fantastic to be back here. You can feel the buzz. People are looking forward to it. When I started playing for South Africa, the Boxing Day and New Year's Test were marquee. And I guess that's one of the reasons we don't play in Australia over this time," he said. "It's sad that this year we won't have a New Year's Test so this is our last opportunity in a marquee Test to make a big play for our fans."
The other hypothesis is that South Africa came to Durban with so much of an upper hand, that they grew complacent. Against both India and Sri Lanka, they routed the opposition by an innings in the first match and that dominance could have led to carelessness at Kingsmead.
After the Wanderers Test, there is no room for slacking off for either side. Both teams were so close to victory but neither could claim it. South Africa have had only a few days to digest their decision to settle for a draw and Smith said they've dealt with it. "As a team, perspective is important and putting things into context," he said. "I feel we are mentally ready for Boxing Day. Today's training session is an important part of that. It will be high intensity and we will be ready come Boxing Day."
South Africa, according to what Smith said at the Wanderers, settled on the draw because they wanted to give themselves a chance to win the series in Durban. It's a big ask from a team that has not done as well here as it has in other parts of the country, and even the world. The heat is on, but at least the change-rooms will be cool.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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