Ntini Decision 'Sensitive', Admits Smith
South African captain Graeme Smith acknowledged on Saturday that a decision on whether to drop veteran fast bowler Makhaya Ntini for tomorrow's third Test against England at Newlands went beyond purely cricketing issues.
Ntini, the only black African in the South African team, is under fire after taking only two wickets in the first two Tests.
He had figures of none for 114 in his team's innings defeat in the second Test in Durban and there have been calls for him to be replaced by Friedel de Wet, who took four wickets as England slipped close to defeat in the first Test in Centurion.
Smith echoed coach Mickey Arthur in saying that the selectors faced a tough decision.
He said he wouldn't be part of the decision.
"As far as I know, the selection process is that Mickey will have the final call on the eleven," said Smith.
"The selectors pick the squads. I have an input but since I've been captain I haven't had a vote on the selection."
Smith said he expected to have a final team by this evening after a meeting between Arthur and the selectors, but said the eleven would only be announced shortly before play on Sunday.
Asked whether dropping Ntini would be a sensitive issue, Smith said: "It's a sensitive issue in South Africa. That's being honest."
"Makhaya is an icon to the country. He's not only the most iconic player of colour we've had, he's also been one of the most iconic cricketers in terms of performance over the last decade.
Smith indicated that the struggles of Ntini, who has taken 390 wickets in 101 Tests, presented challenges for the team management.
"When senior players are at the point where a lot of questions are being asked about them it's always a tough time for a leadership group to manage.
"We've always tried to support Makhaya as much as we can behind the scenes and he's been working hard on his game.
Let's hope there's some confidence left in him for the future."
Smith said it was a crucial match for his team, who are one-nil down in the four-match series, but said the situation was not greatly different to what they had faced in the past.
"Look, over the last period of time we've had many, many important Test matches," he said.
"You can't afford to take any for granted. Obviously in this series, with us being one down, this is a crucial match but we play and prepare for each Test match the same. We're ready for Sunday. We were outplayed in Durban, we are honest about that. We've had a look in the mirror, we've trained well, prepared well and it's a ground we've got a lot of confidence on."
History is on South Africa's side.
They have won 14 of the most recent 18 Tests at Newlands and have come back from 1-0 deficits twice in the past three seasons to win home series - against India 2006/07 and the West Indies in 2007/08.
But Smith admitted that South Africa had slipped from the high standards they set when they won away series against England and Australia in 2008.
He said an emphasis on limited overs cricket, with a view to this year's World Twenty20 and next year's World Cup, had resulted in changes in personnel and a shift in focus.
"It's difficult to put your finger on the little thing that is missing," he said.
"As a team, the style of play hasn't changed.
Maybe players haven't produced the level of performance that we have over those (previous) two years.
It's important that we get back to that, starting tomorrow."