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December 23, 2011
If the most dangerous animal is one that has been wounded, then the most determined cricketer is one whose ego has been punctured. Of all the sportsmen to suffer ignominy in the last 12 months, few have been more humbled than South Africa's cricket team. Although they did not play cricket for seven months of the year, the break gave them ample time to think about the disappointment which preceded it.
Without mentioning what that was just yet, remember that South Africa ended their winter break with a cracker-jack series against Australia. Now, they are in the process of sinking their teeth into a tender Sri Lankan side, whose inability to perform away from home and without their stalwart spinner, Muttiah Muralitharan, has never been more glaring. For Graeme Smith, it is an opportunity to make amends, even though the wrong has long been forgotten.
"After a very disappointing time at the World Cup, a lot of criticism around and the lack of confidence, just to be able to build and strengthen up the squad is crucial," Smith said. "There's stability around the team. You could feel a much more settled nature in the squad in the first Test against Sri Lanka and some confidence shown in players. It's good to see the players have taken that and performed."
March 25, Allan Donald in the black and white of New Zealand and Kyle Mills shoulder-charging Faf du Plessis seem like years ago. To the average South African cricket fan, that quarter-final loss probably doesn't matter that much anymore and definitely has no place in the current summer of cricket. But, Smith is still a little haunted by the memory of that day and, according to him, some of the other players also are. "A lot of the players have been hurt over the last period of time and are really motivated to put things right," he said.
Redemption is too strong a word to use for what South Africa hope to do - if they were looking for that, they achieved it when they bowled Australia out for 47 in Cape Town last month - it's far less complicated than that. Consistency is perhaps closer to the truth or just simply the ability to win a home series for the first time in three seasons. Whatever it is, Durban would be a fitting venue to do it.
The last time South Africa won a Test at Kingsmead was in 2008, against West Indies. Since then, it's been as much of a nemesis to them as left-armers are to Smith and they have lost to Australia, England and India. "It's been extremely disappointing the way we have played at Kingsmead," Smith said. "I want to turn that around. I want to perform well here and I think everybody in the team feels the same way."
Usually, the Kingsmead Test is the Boxing Day one and Smith was candid in saying at this festive time of year, the squad has to be careful not to let their guard down. "At Christmas time, you have to keep your focus up," he said. "The margins have been small here in the Test matches we've played. We've being as clinical as we could have been. Mentally, we need to be strong."
The reality is that few expect South Africa will need a Herculean effort to overcome this Sri Lankan side, that the inspiration the squad will draw from their World Cup exit and their poor record in Durban might be better directed to a different, more competitive opposition. Since, it can't, this will have to do. Smith and Co. can only fight the opponent put in front of them and they are determined to leave nothing to chance. "It's our goal to keep them [Sri Lanka] on the back foot as long as possible and not allow them to find that rhythm and freedom with which they like to play," Smith said.
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