Smith and the last chance saloon
It says much about how South Africa's World Cup campaign has unravelled that most of the questions Graeme Smith fielded at the pre-match press conference concerned an alleged drinking binge hours after the team had been easily beaten by New Zealand. Given England's own alcohol-related woes earlier in the competition, it was no surprise that someone snidely referred to Tuesday's encounter as the Drinking World Championship.
Whatever the billing, it's a contest that South Africa simply have to win, and Smith was certain that it would be "a very explosive game".
South Africa lost their group game to Australia, but it was subsequent reverses against Bangladesh and New Zealand that pushed them to the brink of elimination. Losing the toss against New Zealand in Grenada didn't help but Smith accepted that the team had to shoulder much of the blame.
"We haven't adapted as well as we should have," he said. "We need a bit of luck as well. We haven't always got the better end of the wickets, and haven't played to our potential. But if we win the next three games, we win the World Cup. We haven't achieved our level in this tournament, which has been disappointing, but we know if we perform, we can turn it all around."
They'll certainly fancy their chances against a side that they've beaten 21 times in 34 matches - 11 defeats - but Smith conceded that England had the advantage of being more familiar with the conditions at the Kensington Oval. "England have played here before, this is our first time here," he said. "Adaptability will be the key tomorrow. The pace and bounce will suit us but we've got to find our feet early."
His assertion that South Africa were the more consistent outfit is certainly borne out by facts, and the one-day rankings, but all that will count for little in what has effectively become a knockout game. South Africa will ring the changes after the defeat against New Zealand, with both Justin Kemp and Charl Langeveldt coming into the reckoning. Robin Peterson appears set to miss out, as could Ashwell Prince if South Africa decide to play the extra bowler.
Smith will be under the spotlight in more ways than one. Back in 2003, Nasser Hussain's reference to him as Wotzisname provided the incentive for two magnificent double-centuries, and his less-than-shy approach hasn't always won him admirers. Under his captaincy though, South Africa have gone a long way to ridding themselves of the choker tag.
|It's a long tournament, but we do have drinking rules. If we don't go over it and push the limits, I have no issues.|
"There'll be a lot of heat and pressure on both sides," Smith said. "If we win tomorrow, we'll put a lot of things behind us. But winning tomorrow isn't winning the World Cup. It'll be a good start, take us to semis and we'll take it from there."
Smith identified Kevin Pietersen as the chief threat. "He is one of the best one-day players at the moment," he said. "He's a vital cog in their set-up and we have respect for his cricketing ability. We'll look to knock him over early. We have plans for him as we have for everyone else. We've got to be well prepared and we will be well prepared."
The incident in Grenada - It's alleged that Smith and some of his team-mates nearly came to blows with hecklers - was brushed aside, though it's doubtful whether it will stay under the carpet if South Africa exit the competition on Tuesday. "I have no issue with some guys going out and blowing off steam," Smith said. "It's a long tournament, but we do have drinking rules. If we don't go over it and push the limits, I have no issues."
According to Smith, the rules speak of "calming down two days before the game", and he stressed that there wasn't a problem within the squad. "We've been the quietest team in the World Cup, probably due to where we've been based," he said with a grin, perhaps a reference to England's antics in St Lucia. "Attacking our guys for one night of relaxation is not the done thing."
The incident has led to some like Kepler Wessels, who led South Africa at the 1992 World Cup, asking for stern action to be taken against the offenders, but Smith wasn't about to lose his Monday night's sleep over the comments. "It's hard to find something Kepler doesn't have an issue with," he said with a laugh. "He's always there when we lose, and he's somewhere else when we win."
For the moment, he has far weightier issues on his mind. A month ago, South Africa were atop the one-day rankings and all was well with the world. But if they slip up at this historic venue tomorrow, as they did so memorably against Walsh and Ambrose in their first post-isolation Test, 18 months of hard work and excellent results will mean almost nothing.
"We've not played the cricket we are capable of," Smith said with characteristic candour. "We've got to look at our cricket and see why we've not played well." On Tuesday, those last chance saloon headlines will be appropriate in more ways than one.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo