South Africa's push for winning their second Test series in India, and with it the No. 1 ranking, hinges on the fitness of two of their senior players. Concerns remain over Graeme Smith's finger injury, a confirmed bone fracture now, although the man himself has since declared he will play through the pain, while Mark Boucher has joined him on the injury list after suffering fresh back problems during the team's final practice session on Saturday afternoon.
Smith had picked up a freakish injury to the little finger on his left hand during fielding drills on Friday. Initially it was reported to be ligament damage, but subsequent MRI scans showed it was a bone fracture. "Gonna play tomorrow," he declared via his Twitter feed. "Really looking forward to the awesome experience of playing Eden Gardens. Hope everyone enjoys their valentine's day!"
Before the training on Saturday, Smith had mentioned during the media conference that things would be clearer after he batted in the nets. He warmed-up with some 18-yard throw-downs and then padded up to the face the pace of Dale Steyn and Wayne Parnell. From a distance, he appeared to be comfortable even if he wasn't fluent in his strokes. Smith was not going to lose sleep over that because the knockdowns were more about getting the feel rather than focussing on the minutiae.
Smith is a determined player, and has proved his willingness to fight through pain in the past. After suffering a hamstring injury in the 2008 IPL, Smith travelled to England and played till the Test series was won even though the pain refused to recede.
Then, in the first week of 2009, despite carrying a debilitating elbow injury and fracturing his left hand in the first innings, Smith returned heroically at the SCG to battle out the last overs of the Test. Smith, dressed up in borrowed clothes and playing gear since he had come to the ground without his kit and whites having been medically advised to not play any further part in the Test, fought it out for 26 minutes but was dismissed five minutes from close. It was one of the bravest efforts seen on a cricket field and even the Australians doffed their sweat-stained baggy greens to Smith.
With that record backing him, Smith remained optimistic on the eve of the Test. "I have certainly, in the last two years, had a few pain issues to deal with and I have got through them reasonably well," Smith said. "I am pretty confident that I can deal with the pain and stuff and get through but until you have done it, it's hard to say."
If Smith does play he would not be in his usual fielding position at first slip, which is now likely to be occupied by AB de Villiers. But even that could change if Boucher fails to recover from his back injury. Boucher had returned to the dressing room in the final session of play on the third day in Nagpur, suffering from back spasms. Those troubles resurfaced on Saturday so Boucher decided to play safe and passed the keeping gloves to de Villiers early during the training session.
Even then Smith remained confident of completing the job of winning a Test series in India, something they had come close to achieving on their previous visit, in 2008, before a dodgy pitch in Kanpur scuppered their chances. "Not many teams get the opportunity to win series in India," Smith pointed out. "For most cricketers, it is a lifetime opportunity to win a series in India and that is something that like I said we want to tick off as a team and something that we are motivated to achieve and something we are excited about."