Graeme Smith has named MS Dhoni, his counterpart, as South Africa's primary target in the two-Test series, which begins at the VCA Stadium on Saturday. Smith said his team was gunning for Dhoni because he carried the bulk of the responsibility for India and, if they attacked him successfully, they would be well placed to win the series and snatch the No.1 Test ranking.
"We see him [Dhoni] as the key figure in their side," Smith said. "He obviously carries a lot of responsibility so if we can create a lot of pressure on him may be we can open up a few chinks."
Smith said Dhoni, who was victorious in his first Test as captain against South Africa in Kanpur in 2008, had grown in stature and earned respect from opponents. "He seems a good, controlled leader of men," he said. "But we have gathered a lot of information on him from the time he made his debut as Test captain."
However, Smith said that the South Africans were not just picking targets from the opposition but were also trying to come to terms with changes in their own house. Less than ten days ago, Mickey Arthur resigned as head coach and Cricket South Africa [CSA] sacked the selection panel headed by Mike Procter. A new interim coach (Corrie van Zyl), an interim selection panel (led by CSA chief Gerald Majola), a batting consultant (Kepler Wessels) were put in place ahead of the crucial tour of India.
"Last week was quite a tough time for all the guys including myself," Smith said. "There were a lot of mixed media reports which weighed a lot on our heads."
Smith said it would take time for normalcy to return but added that the entire South African camp was relaxed and focused on adapting quickly to the situation and the Indian environment. "It has been a rushed preparation for Corrie and Kepler trying to come to terms with everything. But each guy is finding a space in the environment. Ultimately this tour would be judged on results."
Smith was clear there was no room for error in two-Test rubbers. "It obviously puts a lot of emphasis on the first Test. You need to be lot more precise. There is no way to get back in the series if you allow things to slip early on."
In 2009, South Africa hosted against Australia and England and, on both occasions, they failed to get off a winning start. Australia beat them handsomely 2-1 to regain the No.1 spot while England frustrated them throughout the four-Test series late last year. "We haven't started series well off late so our first Test match is key," Smith said.
The primary reason South Africa remain hopeful is their spirited display on their previous tour of India when they took the series lead with a stunning victory on a pace-friendly pitch in Ahmedabad. India bounced back to level the series on a dubious Green Park pitch days later, and Smith said the players were hungry and ready to correct past errors.
"In 2008 we had won in England, and then in Australia and we came close to beating India. That is our goal now: we want to tick this box," Smith said, terming the Indian challenge as "awesome".
The flat pitches, with slow and low bounce, in contrast to the hard, grassy springboards of home, will be the biggest challenge South Africa face in the coming weeks. Smith denied the dry pitches would dissuade his bowlers, indicating that their strength relied on the Dale Steyn-led three-man pace attack, also featuring Morne Morkel and left-armer Wayne Parnell. "That is the key, to adapt to the conditions, but it is also important we play our style of cricket," Smith stressed.
One concern South Africa have is Paul Harris, their main spinner, who was ineffective against England and was dropped from the final Test in Johannesburg, where the hosts leveled the series. His record against India is the worst among all countries: in four Tests he has managed 13 wickets at 45 each. Offspinner Johan Botha has been less threatening since the ICC banned his doosra last May. But Botha batted in the warm-up game against Board President's XI, raising doubts over Harris' spot.
But Smith cleared those doubts and indirectly indicated Harris is likely to come back into the team. "Paul is the man with the mantle at the moment and it would take a lot for that to change. I think Johan [Botha] can add a lot of value but these are things we need to take a look at tonight and make a decision."