South African concerns over Kingsmead again
If actions reveal more than words, the behaviour of South Africa's think tank cancel out AB de Villiers' claim that the Kingsmead pitch is not a worry ahead of what could be a series-deciding ODI against Pakistan.
For half-an-hour on Tuesday, Gary Kirsten and team manager Mohammad Moosajee held animated conversation with the chief executive of the Dolphins, Jesse Chellan and groundsman Wilson Ngobese and they were not just catching up. The topic of conversation was the strip and it was clear South Africa were not happy.
They complained about the surface being too dry and were concerned it would take too much turn, which would play into Pakistan's hands perfectly. They wanted something that would suit their own team better - specifically a harder surface. Later in the afternoon, Ngobese and his staff watered the strip. On Wednesday, there was no meeting, only polite hellos.
Such is South Africa's paranoia with Durban. Over the past two seasons, South Africa have labelled Kingsmead, "subcontinental," after losing Test matches to both India and Sri Lanka. Mysteriously, this season Durban did not host any Test and was only given a Twenty20 against New Zealand and another against Pakistan, along with tomorrow's ODI.
South Africa earned an emphatic eight-wicket win over New Zealand but T20 against Pakistan was washed out. As a result, no-one was able to judge whether conditions in Durban would continue to suit visitors from Asia more than it does the hosts. With the one-day series on the line, it seems that is not a chance management is willing to take.
Pakistan's obvious strength is their spinners. Although South Africa have played them well they do not want to give them any additional advantage, especially not with the series poised as it is. If Pakistan win in Durban, the contest will be level again at 2-2. If South Africa win, they take the trophy.
De Villiers insisted he is not the "kind of guy who worries about stuff like that," but got in a subtle snipe at Kingsmead for not offering the team wickets they are used to. "We're playing at home and we'd like to get bouncy and pacy tracks, which we haven't got the whole of the season. In the last two years, the wickets in South Africa have slowed up quite a bit. It's just one of those things you've got to deal with. The Kingsmead wicket looks a bit drier than normal," he said.
He quickly countered the criticism by saying if South Africa want to dominate the shortest format as they currently do in the longer one, they will have to learn to adapt. "If we want to be the No. 1 team in the world, which is the main goal eventually, we'll have to beat any team in any conditions. If there is turn we'll have to adapt as quickly as possible and beat Pakistan at their own game."
He went one further too and challenged the current team to prove they can perform even when the situation is not tailor-made for them. "That kind of win would give me a lot more satisfaction than beating them on a bouncy and pacy track," he said and pointed to the performance in Johannesburg on Sunday as an example.
"At the Wanderers, we got the bad end of the toss. The ball was moving around the first 10 overs and it was a very flat wicket in the afternoon. It wasn't a bouncy, pacy track; it was a flat wicket. It suited Pakistan quite well and we just outplayed them. We're beating them by playing good cricket and doing the basics better than them."
In particular, de Villiers was impressed with the efforts in the field where he points to the bowlers' improvement in the absence of Morne Morkel and Jacques Kallis. "The guys are coming up with very clear game plans and they know exactly what they want to do. We were put under the pump at the Wanderers and we came through. It's a step in the right direction to defend successfully in a game like that. Things like the death overs have always been a worry in the past and we did better in that department," he said.
The spotlight will be on the batsmen in Durban, though. If the pitch does allow Pakistan's spinners an opening, it will also provide a stern examination of the South African middle-orders' ability to counter them.
Without Faf du Plessis, South Africa go back to being fairly inexperienced in that area. De Villiers indicated that du Plessis' spot will be taken by David Miller and not Quinton de Kock at first. "For this game, Dave is next in line," he said. Known as a classy, big-hitter, Miller will have to bring out his softer side to face the spin and if he can do successfully, he may earn himself a ticket to the Champions Trophy in June and his home ground, Kingsmead, a few points in the patriotism stakes.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent