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Graeme Smith chose best strategy possible in closing stages of 1st Test against India

Graeme Smith © Getty Images
Graeme Smith’s uncharacteristic decision of calling off the chase earned him a lot of criticism © Getty Images

 

There have been a lot of speculations whether South Africa should have gone for the chase in the final overs at the New Wanderers Stadium. Abhishek Mukherjee tries to explain why Graeme Smith’s decision to shut shop was the best route South Africa could have taken.

 

It has not been even 24 hours since the entire cricket fraternity had been speculating over the sights of resilient South African batsmen, exhausted but trying Indian bowlers, two calm captains taking decisions on the spot, Ajinkya Rahane almost pulling off a Joe Solomon, and a confused Imran Tahir in the pavilion.

 

There were millions (hundreds, actually; the others were busy watching Dhoom 3 instead and had been typing phrases like “Test cricket is the best” on social network hours after the Test was over) of viewers in the comfort zones of their respective couches, biting their nails to non-existence as Mohammed Shami, Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn finished things off in a draw.

 

Then the knives came out: Graeme Smith had not been positive enough.

 

Things like that are always easy to say, actually. It is another thing to put oneself in the shoes of the man. Remember, this is Smith we’re discussing. If there is one batsman who has believed in chases it has been Smith. And it was not about the 435-run chase in a One-Day International (ODI) at the same ground, where he had scored a 55-ball 90 that no one remembers.

 

Is Smith a defensive person?

 

Let us not forget that Smith’s role in taking South Africa to the No 1 position in Test cricket. During his career (almost entirely as captain) Smith has led South Africa to 21 run-chases. He has scored 1,114 runs in these fourth innings (nobody else has scored over a thousand) at an average of 85.69. But that is not all: he also has a strike rate of 69.02 in these innings (his career strike-rate is 59.62).

 

These are not the kind of numbers one associates with a defensive person.

 

There has been more. In the good old days of 2005-06 when Australia used to dominate the world, Smith had a go at them at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). South Africa went into the third Test 0-1 down; Smith had declared his second innings closed at 194 for six, setting the mighty hosts a target of 288 in 76 overs with only one quality bowler (Shaun Pollock) at his disposal. Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting had chased it down, and Smith was criticised for being aggressive.

 

Let us not forget the two World Cup matches from 2007, either. South Africa had qualified for the Super Eights and few captains would have gone for the chase after Australia had set a target of 378 in the League match at Basseterre; Smith, however, dared to take them on, and along with AB de Villiers, added 160 in 20 overs for the opening stand. It did not come off.

 

If that is pushed aside as a desperate all-out way to conquer the Aussies, a more calculated, astounding strategy was adopted in the semi-final at Gros Islet when the two teams met again. This time all South African batsmen took risks, walking down the ground towards the bowler and try out unconventional shots: however, after Smith himself and Jacques Kallis fell to the new ball after trying to take the bull by the horns, South Africa never recovered and crashed to 149.

 

The plan backfired and South Africa were eliminated. Smith took a lot of flak, but it cannot be denied that he had actually tried to do something different in a big match to unsettle the Australians. Had it come off, he would have probably been hailed as a genius. Instead, the tag of “chokers” was stamped even more firmly.

 

 

What happened at New Wanderers?

 

South Africa were set 458 in 136 overs. Most captains would have asked their wards to shut shutters, but not Smith; he knew of his own weakness against Zaheer Khan, so he mostly stayed away from the strike when the southpaw bowled, letting Alviro Petersen do the scoring.

 

Once he had settled down he opened up, and he had actually scored a 73-ball 44 before being run out while attempting a risky single. Even after South Africa were 197 for four before lunch on Day Four, he had never advised Faf du Plessis and de Villiers to go on the defensive.

 

Robin Jackman (in the commentary box) and Pat Symcox (in the expert panel) both believed that if du Plessis and de Villiers batted till tea they would be able to save the Test. Nobody thought of winning, despite the target being reduced to 222 in 61 overs.

 

But du Plessis and de Villiers played positively. Meanwhile, MS Dhoni was up to his own cunning schemes, squeezing overs from Virat Kohli to hasten the second new ball after lunch while his fast bowlers were still fresh from the rest (of course, at that point India were the firm favourites).

 

The pair then went on to thwart the new ball and bat on till tea; the target was now down to 127 in 30 overs, and du Plessis and de Villiers, both outstanding batsmen, had made Smith’s plans work to perfection. Throughout history all successful big chases have involved at least one big partnership, and du Plessis and de Villiers had given Smith theirs.

 

Then, with South Africa all set for a victory, de Villiers dragged one from Ishant Sharma to the stumps, and JP Duminy fell to Shami the same way nine balls later. But the hosts were not to be demoralised: du Plessis was still there, concentration unwavering, technique unfaltering, jaw determined and eyes focussed.

 

With him was the gum-chewing Philander, ever ready to pounce upon anything loose and a demeanour calm enough to send a chill down the spines of the opposition. A new strategy was adopted: du Plessis would now stay till the end while Philander would have a go, taking risks if necessary.

 

Then it happened: du Plessis drove one to Rahane at mid-off and set off for a single; his mind had probably completed the run, but his tired legs could not keep up with the heart; du Plessis’s desperate dive fell short of the crease as Rahane threw the stumps down with a direct hit for the second time in the Test. One of the greatest innings of contemporary cricket was over: South Africa needed 16 from 19 balls.

 

 

Smith’s change of strategy

 

The chase had been on till du Plessis’s dismissal: Steyn walked out, and along with Philander (who was quite comfortable playing his strokes) went into a shell, playing out fifteen dot balls on the trot. Why?

 

Smith’s uncharacteristic decision earned him a lot of criticism. The armchair critics went at him, all guns blazing: a country does not have a right to be called No 1 if they cannot chase 16 in 19 balls, a target that is almost always chased down easily in the shorter formats these days.

 

This, unfortunately, was not one of the shorter formats. Let us consider, for an example, a case where Steyn would have edged a four; Dhoni had the easy option of pushing a slip to third man; he could always have bogged two non-specialists down by having his bowlers bowl wide of the stumps and setting a defensive field. Winning was not easy.

 

What, on the other hand, would have happened if Steyn, or, worse, Philander, would have got out in the process? The floodgates would have opened for India, since the only ones left to bat were the non-batsman Tahir and the would-bat-only-if-absolutely-necessary Morne Morkel. It must be remembered that Morkel had his front-foot injured, and would possibly not be able to hand the strike over to his partner, since he would not have been allowed a runner.

 

Smith, the warrior of many a war, weighed his options: aggression had always been his forte; in fact, that was how he had taken South Africa to the top; however, there are times when you need to let go: this was one of them. Of course there was a chance that South Africa would have won. On the other hand there was a greater chance they would have lost.

 

He knew he would have looked more heroic if he had gone for a chase; the crowd would have loved him; and the critics would not have been able to utter a single word (they would have actually done anyway; few critics put themselves in the shoes of losing captains).

 

So he decided to let go; he also knew that his Indian counterpart had been standing behind the stumps nonchalantly, but if you gave him an inch he would make a mile out of it. He knew that beneath Dhoni’s icy exterior lies a hungry opportunist who had been waiting for that much-needed breakthrough for a day-and-a-half. He would not have let this chance go.

 

So he decided to put a SORRY, WE’RE CLOSED sign on the Test and set his entire security system to work. If he would not make a profit from the day he would at least not allow a burglary in the dying hours. After all, there was a No 1 ranking he had to protect. At home. And there was still a Test left. Why take a chance when the odds were stacked up against you?

 

If there is still any doubt Smith’s calculated defensive ploy one should go back to the last over. Steyn let go of Shami’s first two balls. South Africa required 16 from four, and India needed three wickets. Three wickets in four balls was a seriously difficult task — so why not have a go? So Steyn hoicked, and obtained a bye.

 

Then 15 from three; Shami needed a hat-trick. Philander tried a slog as well and missed. Both sides were now out of the Test, but the previous two balls were a clear sign that Smith had always wanted to win, but only when he knew he wasn’t losing. Caring about critics was something he had stopped bothering ages back: after all, he was the captain of the best side in the world; not them.

 

South Africa vs India — Live on Ten Cricket

 

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

 

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