Smith expecting England backlash

While Graeme Smith, the South Africa captain, was waxing lyrical about the merits of having a varied bowling attack and the advantage of an attacking spinner, an abrupt sound silenced him. It was an electronic sheep bleeting its way out of someone's cellphone.

"Well, that's just beautiful," Smith said before guffawing in his usual meaty fashion. If he'd been gearing up for a match against Australia, it may have been considered sabotage instead of a big joke, but with Smith's new, relaxed attitude, there's a good chance it wouldn't have fazed him even then. Smith hardly moved a muscle in anger when he was asked about South Africa's first real test of the World Cup.

"England and South Africa is always a big game, it's always been competitive," Smith said. "I expect tomorrow to be no different."

After brushing aside West Indies and Netherlands, both of whom South Africa had lengthy unbeaten records against, they now face an England side that has beaten them in seven of the last eight completed one-day matches between the two teams, including in a series in South Africa. Smith refused to read too much into that bit of history, saying the reason for England's success against his men was really, quite obvious. "They played better than us in those eight games."

Since England last played South Africa, they have lost almost as many one-day games as they've won - losing 12 and winning 14. They notched up series wins against Bangladesh, Australia and Pakistan but much of the good work was undone when they crashed to a 6-1 defeat in the post-Ashes one-day series in Australia, and have yet to settle at this World Cup. "They are a very proud team; they've had some really good ups in the last two years and their performances have been credible over the last while," Smith said.

More pressingly for England, they've just come off the event's first upset: a three-wicket loss to their little brothers Ireland and although they don't have the same instincts that scream 'backlash' like Australia do, they'll still feel as though they have something to prove. That something could come against the team they knocked out of the 2009 Champions Trophy.

Smith was aware England would be determined to fight back. "The Ireland game would have hurt them a lot. It was terrific for the spirit of the World Cup but they will be looking to bounce back." This was not a man bracing for a backlash, it was a man who had anticipated it and who knew it was coming.

There's always been a psychological element to matches between these teams, intensified by the number of South African-born players in the England side. While that story has become old, with Smith saying it was "about the fiftieth time I've had to answer that question," he did say South Africa would try to capitalise on whatever mental frailties conceding 959 runs in three matches may have caused in England's bowlers. "Maybe we can take advantage of that lack of confidence," Smith said, referring specifically to the opening pair of James Anderson and Stuart Broad.

Smith and Hashim Amla will be the two batsmen best placed to hurt Anderson and Broad, but Smith has problems of his own. In his last 23 one-day innings, he has not scored a century and while he has a 92 and a 77 under his belt against Pakistan and India respectively, he has looked awkward in the tournament so far. "I've got starts in all the warm-up games, and it will be nice to turn one of those into a big score." That was all he was willing to say, preferring to steer away from analysis of individuals and concentrate on the group.

South Africa have the advantage of having been in Chennai just three weeks ago. It was the first stop on their tour and the place where the World Cup preparations started. Smith said he was looking forward to the warmer climate. "Being in Chennai is more like the real India, the warmth, after coming from the cold." Delhi and Chandigarh, where South Africa played their first two matches of the tournament, had temperatures hovering between 20 and 25 degrees while Chennai was topping 35.

India is also a place where South Africa have been more successful than England, winning seven out of 13 matches to England's six out of 23 in the last ten years. That may not be on either captain's mind going into the match, but it may be something they can keep in the bank for next time.