Five years ago, to the day, South Africa successfully chased 434 to beat Australia at the Wanderers. It was a historic win, featuring the highest run-chase in ODI cricket. It was a day to remember and when Graeme Smith was in the field against India on Saturday afternoon in Nagpur, memories of that game came back to him for all the wrong reasons.
"On the bus this morning the team manager said to me it was the anniversary of the 438 game and at one stage I was having nightmares about chasing that," Smith said. Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar were doing to the South African attack worse than what Adam Gilchrist and Simon Katich did that day in 2006. After 15 overs of that match, Australia were 96 without loss. India reached that point after 11.2 overs and they showed no signs of stopping.
While South Africa had a stunned home crowd to deal with in Johannesburg, in Nagpur they had a boisterous Indian crowd, spurring on every run. "We were on the backend of a massive beating," Smith said. "The noise out there was really intense." Control was slipping from Smith's hands and he didn't know what to do to rein in the run flow. Two overs later, he did the only thing he thought might work and called for a time out.
Robin Peterson had an lbw appeal against Sachin Tendulkar, which was clearly missing leg, but Smith asked for the review, not because he thought it was out, but because he felt the team needed a break. "It was really to bring the guys in together. The way Sachin and Viru were playing, it was difficult to connect and regroup."
The team got into a huddle immediately and Smith began instructing. "I said to them: let's show some composure and focus our heads and maybe we can make up the 30-40 runs extra that we've given away." For the next 15 balls little changed but then the tide started turning. Johan Botha's ability to turn the game around was on display, and even though the wickets didn't come for at least another 20 overs the advantage began shifting.
In the end, Smith was pleased to report that South Africa felt as though they had "beat our targets by miles," during the innings break. Dale Steyn, Man of the Match for his 5 for 50, said that after the blitzkrieg South Africa would have been happy with keeping India to 340. "They kept putting up those projected scores and I kept thinking what is going on here," he said.
Steyn has had a particularly successful run in Nagpur, where he took 7 for 51 in a Test match last year and engineered the Indian collapse during the batting Powerplay on Saturday. Smith said the way his bowlers "just hung in there and pounced at the end," was what pleased him the most about their effort in the field.
There may have been some thoughts of South Africa being on too much of a high after their stunning comeback with the ball to focus on their task with the bat, but Smith said the positive vibes pushed them on. "We were on a bit of a momentum shift. We spoke a lot about partnerships and how we wanted to play."
Although the pitch was "not as free-flowing" as the Indian opening pair had made it look, South Africa stuck to the task. Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla laid the foundation, before AB de Villiers put the team on track to get over the line. Still, the untested middle order had to play their part and Smith was glad that their role ended up being vital. "This is massive for them and they would have gained a lot of confidence from this."
It ended up not being as difficult a task as the 434 they had to hunt down five years ago, but the conditions in Nagpur were tough to deal with. Smith said South Africa were careful not to be overawed and wanted to start building a legacy of being competitive in big games and pressure situations. "So many people talk about the privilege of playing in India and it is a privilege. But I also told the team that this is where a team of our quality deserves to play. We wanted to earn respect today and we did that with the way we played and the way we came back."