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Durban,more away than home for South Africa

Apart from losing their last four Tests,hosts' headaches compound with selection issues.

Written by Bharat Sundaresan | Durban | Published: December 25, 2013 1:58:09 am

Kingsmead has never been a happy hunting ground for Graeme Smith — neither with the bat nor while he’s held the reins for South Africa. The opener averages only 31.52 in 11 Tests with just a single century. Four defeats in four previous Tests is a good enough reason for the South African captain to not feel at peace in Durban.

Close to five years now,he’s fostered another pet peeve with the historic venue,one that was finally resolved on Tuesday. For,when Smith walked into the home team pavilion,he discovered that his appeal had finally been met. The South African dressing-room at Kingsmead now proudly boasted of having an air-conditioner.

Smith couldn’t hide a sheepish smile when,after sitting engrossed for 10 minutes while answering queries relating to various issues,he was reminded about the brand-new AC. “Yes,it’s been a long time coming. Our fast bowlers will certainly be looking forward to make the most of the AC for which we batsmen will have to bat for long periods,” he quipped.

The delight regarding the air-conditioned dressing-room may have been short-lived for Smith and his team as they soon sauntered out into the middle,the batsmen in particular — Hashim Amla,AB de Villiers and Alviro Petersen — for a recce of the Kingsmead wicket. It was the same one that has been their scourge for four consecutive years now,the losses including the one to India the last time they played here and a 208-run defeat against Sri Lanka—two subcontinent teams without a reputation of doing well outside Asia.

Despite having come within eight runs of an incredible world-record run-chase,the Wanderers Test also left Smith and the South Africans with a couple of serious headaches to deal with,particularly in the bowling department. Morne Morkel had been given a 20 per cent chance for his twisted ankle to recover at the end of the final day’s play in Johannesburg.

“I think Jacko said something about 20 per cent,which Morne believes is about 80 per cent. At the best of times he struggles to control those legs,” Smith had joked on Sunday. The prognosis has gotten better over the last two days but the hosts have decided to take a final call on their tall fast bowler,who rocked India in the first innings,on Wednesday.

In case Morkel does fail to make it,the South Africans are likely to go with a horses-for-courses option in Kyle Abbott,who made a sensational start to his Test career earlier this year with figures of 7/29 against Pakistan at Centurion. If he plays on Thursday,it will only be the Kwazulu-Natal swing bowler’s second Test,his first on his home-ground.

The Asian connection

Kingsmead is also leg-spinner Imran Tahir’s adopted home. It is here that the Pakistani-born immigrant started making an impact while representing the Dolphins. As of now,however,his fate in terms of playing the second Test if anything hangs in the balance. Not only was the leg-spinner ineffective at the Wanderers,he was almost always the catalyst for India restoring momentum. Overall he conceded runs at over five an over and only accounted for two tail-end wickets in India’s second innings. His lack of proficiency with the bat might also have played a crucial role – one that Smith admitted to – in the home team’s contentious decision to back out of the chase at the last hurdle.

Tahir could well make way for left-arm spinner Robin Peterson,who can also be a handful with the bat. But there will be turn on offer Kingsmead. No one knows about it better than Tahir,having taken 56 wickets at 22.42 on this ground in first-class cricket. It remains to be seen whether South Africa stick to an attacking option with Tahir at a ground that he’s done well historically or they get swayed with the common sentiment of replacing him with the more defensive Petersen. With Smith’s pursuit for a much cooler atmosphere in the dressing-room now fulfilled,he will now hope that his team’s quest for a Test victory at Durban that has now stretched into his fifth year too will reach a satisfactory conclusion over the week.

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