My University coach said, “Son, Cricket is a simple game. You just got to bat well, bowl well and field well”. Try telling this to Faf now! South Africa have traditionally been a good travelling team, especially in an era where most teams have struggled to do that. But, given the context of this series, playing against one of the strongest Indian test sides fresh from a victorious test series in the West Indies, it was going to be a tough challenge. Add to this the fact that India now boasts one of the best pace attacks in the world, on top of having the invincible spin duo of Jadeja and Ashwin at home in their ranks, it was always going to be a herculean task to pull off something special.
So, what went wrong?
No one expected SouthAfrica to win the series, let alone one of the 3 tests, but to not put up a fight, and register their biggest series loss since readmission, was not expected. After all they had one of the world’s best fast bowlers , two opening batsmen who have been in good form over the past 15-18 months, a proven wicket keeper attacking batsmen (almost a staple requirement post Adam Gilchrist), a world class test batsman in Faf, and an upcoming middle order batsman hungry to prove himself in testing conditions.
But, looking at the victory margins, batting and bowling averages and the opening partnerships, it is not hard to conclude pretty much everything went wrong for the Proteas. Taking a closer look beyond just the numbers, to understand where it all began to go downhill, let us analyse the batting and bowling strategies of South Africa.
Not playing to their strengths!
The first test of any series is important in setting up the series, something India seem to get wrong whenever they tour the SENA countries. This time it was South Africa who missed out on an opportunity to start the series with a strong performance, despite given the strong showing of their top order in the practice games. This can be put down to poor strategy. South Africa has traditionally won games with their pacers, and despite the conditions historically favoring spin in India, and given the dry nature of the wicket, a fact both captains agreed to at the toss, South Africa missed a trick by not playing 3 genuine fast bowlers. Going only with Rabada and Philander, experienced but not effective in these conditions, and instead playing 3 spinners was clearly not playing to their strengths and rather playing entirely on the conditions.
Traditionally teams that have won tests in India have won it on the back of their pace bowlers, be it Steyn in the 2010 Nagpur test, or McGrath and Gillespie in 2004. Indian batsmen are one of the world’s best players of spin, and unless the spinner is of the quality of a Muralidharan or Swann, playing 3 spinners against India is never a good call, however dry the surface is. It would have been interesting to see how the Indian openers, one playing his first first-class game as an opener and the other short on confidence from a very average tour of the West Indies, would have played the twin pace attack of Lungi Ngidi and Rabada.
The Reverse swing factor – Absent!
Another dimension of winning in India is bringing in reverse swing as an attacking option to take wickets. On those long days where batsmen pile on the runs on a flat day 1 or 2 wicket, reverse swing is like the ‘get out of jail card‘ handed over to the bowling teams. With only 2 fast bowlers and 1 of them a more traditional seam bowler relying on the conditions, in Philander, South Africa gave away the possibility of exploiting this during the test series. It is not a given that playing Ngidi or any of the other genuine quicks would have meant SouthAfrica fared better, but it definitely would have given them more options from a bowling perspective, to attack India.
It also did not help that Vernon Philander was reduced to almost a bits and pieces player by the end of the series and lacked any form of penetration, and that the spinners failed to create any kind of impact on the series. Just like batsmen, bowlers should hunt in pairs to get the best rewards, and in this series, the spinners not only did not trouble the Indian batters but continued to release whatever little pressure their only effective bowler Rabada built up with his pace and skill.
It’s all about application with the bat!
In terms of the batting averages for the series, the lower order outdid the top order which is never a good sign for any team. Dean Elgar and Markram scored fighting hundreds (Markram in the warm-up game) and De Kock had earlier done well in the T20 series – all indications that they had the ability to counter the strong Indian bowling attack in Indian conditions. However, having the ability to bat well and actually batting well and scoring runs are two different things, a fact many batsmen would agree to especially in Test level.
The South African batsman lacked application, given the run of starts Faf and Bavuma got in the series, but never going on to make it count. On the contrary India had 1 double centurion in every test match, clearly showing they had the intent, the ability and the patience to string long match winning knocks every time they got a chance to bat. It also did not help that, South Africa never got to bat on a fresh wicket, but hey test cricket is meant to be this challenging!
A different approach would have helped?
It would have been interesting to see what would have transpired if South Africa had taken a different approach to their batting line up right from the get-go by experimenting a bit more. Faf showed glimpses of his class in his fighting 50, but playing himself down at 5, he gave himself little opportunity to influence the test. It is understandable he was setting up Bavuma to take up the number 4 role, but given the inexperience of the lower order (though they showed lot of fight), and given that in India you win test matches by batting once, batting long and scoring big, by batting at 5, he was not setting himself up for success. Faf is known for his ability to play both the attacking brand of cricket and bat long as he showed famously in his debut series against Australia and he should have taken more responsibility in this series by batting up at 4 or even 3 to take the fight to India. MS Dhoni said when given a choice of picking or not picking Faf for his IPL franchise, Chennai super kings, he would always pick Faf for his ability to play spin well and contribute in the business end of the league in the big games. Faf, not due to lack of intent, given that he is manfuly shouldering the transition period post AB, Grame Smith and Hashim Amla, failed to do that and leave a mark on the series. However, he can take consolation from the fact that one other test captain Ricky Ponting, despite pummelling India with centuries in home conditions, has consistently failed to make an impression when touring India and this alone does not make him any less of a champion.
Overall, the batting looked one batsman too short and never managed to build any big partnerships to threaten India.
It is possible that despite playing 3 fast bowlers, managing to extract reverse swing, batsman showing more intent, patience and mental strength to bat long innings and getting the batting order spot on from the first innings, South Africa could have gone on to lose the series 3-0 because after all they were playing one of the strongest teams in the world in their home conditions.
“Every Test match, they bat first, they score 500, they declare when it’s dark, they get three wickets when it’s dark, and when Day 3 starts, you’re under pressure. – Faf du Plessis
South Africa’s team management should put this loss in perspective, and not make knee jerk changes, but instead invest a bit more in the current crop of players like Markram, Bavuma and hope for the best. For the good of cricket, specifically Test cricket, it is important that South Africa find its winning ways, as too many one-sided contests that last 5 days is not the best advertisement for this great game!