Smith denies doctoring scary pitch

Graeme Smith is adamant he has not dictated the type of pitch he wants for South Africa’s second Test against Australia in Port Elizabeth, despite the venue’s curator telling Smith’s Australian counterpart Michael Clarke that he was beholden to the home team’s captain and coach.

On Tuesday Clarke expressed his surprise at the response to his question to the St George’s Park curator about what was he planning to do to the pitch before the match began on Thursday.

“I had a chat to the groundsman today, [who said], ‘At the moment the grass is 8mm high.’ I asked what he’s going to do with that. He said, ‘I’m going to speak to their captain and coach before I make a decision,’ ” Clarke said. “That’s the groundsman’s plans, so I’m interested to see what the South African captain and coach’s plans are for this wicket.”

While Smith and Proteas coach Russell Domingo were seen in discussions with the curator when the home team trained on Tuesday afternoon by Wednesday morning Smith downplayed the significance of those discussions, when asked directly about the curator’s deference to him.

“That’s very kind of him. One thing I’ve learned is when you ask for things you generally don’t get them, so we tend to stay away. We’re just happy with a good Test wicket,” the South Africa captain said.

“We just requested a good Test wicket. Ultimately he knows this wicket better than all of us.

“Obviously we’d like a wicket that can produce a result, a wicket that will provide good cricket over the next five days.”

Smith reckoned the pitch, as of Wednesday morning, resembled “a pretty good, normal P.E. wicket”. There was a decent covering of grass on most of the pitch, albeit with a brown tinge, but it appeared to be somewhat bare in parts. It was then mowed and rolled just after midday on Wednesday, after South Africa finished training and before Australia arrived for its session, after which much of the brown tinge had disappeared.

Smith reiterated his belief the primary cause of Mitch Johnson’s 12-wicket haul in the first Test was pitch conditions in Centurion that were favourable to him. He said it was important for he and his Proteas teammates not to become daunted by the excitement generated by his hostile performance to start the series,

“It’s important not to get caught up in the hype. Obviously we know Mitchell has bowled extremely well, bowled aggressively. We all know that creates headlines, creates stories, creates fanfare,” he said. “Certainly there’s a huge amount of respect in our team for someone who is performing well, but it’s important not to get caught up in that, and [instead] focus on what’s important, and that’s us performing well and getting our skills right.”

Smith said the Proteas had not spend any more time scouting or debriefing on Johnson than they would for any front-line bowler ahead of any Tests. The South Africa captain also backed his own ability to bounce back from facing only a total of four balls from Johnson for the match, falling to the left-armer in each innings.

“I’ve faced Mitchell a lot of times – times where he’s had the better of me and times I’ve had the better of him,” he said, downplaying the significance of being bounced out by Johnson in the first innings at Centurion Park.

“One dismissal doesn’t make you lose credibility. There’s a lot of guys who’ve been able to perform against the fastest bowlers in the world over a long time. I’ve made a career out of looking ugly. If I can keep doing that I’ll be happy.”

Smith said it was crucial the Proteas’ top-three produce at least one major partnership between them to put pressure on the Australian bowling attack.

The captain disagreed that being nil-one down to Australia in a three-Test series posed the team’s biggest challenge to recover, highlighting its ability to salvage a one-all draw against Pakistan in spin-friendly conditions in the United Arab Emirates in October last year.

“Obviously Australia are playing well at the moment – they’re hot, they’re in form – which is always a challenge,” he said.

“It’s difficult to say why we’ve started so slowly in a lot of series. Maybe we just don’t like to throw the first punch.

“It’s important you have the ability to respond and know how to respond. Experience plays a big role there, in terms of performances to fall back on. This week, it’s about … not carrying too much baggage from Pretoria [Centurion] and making sure we can put it into our performance here.”

Smith said he was unable to disclose who would replace concussed all-rounder Ryan McLaren in its line-up for the second Test, saying the decision would be made at a meeting with chief South Africa selector Andrew Hudson later on Thursday. Batsman Dean Elgar and left-arm fast-bowler Wayne Parnell are the two prime candidates for inclusion.