South Africa, as a team and as individuals, have a seriously impressive record in India. Yet, since they last lost a series away from home, in 2006, they have only managed to draw in India. Now they face an inexperienced batting line-up, for their bowlers to have a go at. And if they can get out of their slow-start syndrome unscathed, they might be able to conquer this, their final frontier. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
By the time you are reading this, the first session of play, in the first Test between India and South Africa would have started. We’ll know whether South Africa have emerged out of their pragmatic shell, and opted for the brave choice of two spinners, despite the fact that they have achieved much of their success in India, thanks to their pace bowlers.
Much will depend on JP Duminy’s fitness, and, of course, how much worth coach Russell Domingo puts into statistics. South Africa’s pace bowlers have managed to find success in conditions where spinners usually thrive. Since 1996, quick bowlers have taken 134 wickets, between them, at an average of 28.05 in 12 Tests against India. Australia’s pacers have taken more wickets (171), but they have also played more Tests (20), and those wickets have come at a higher average (35.69).
The pace bowlers’ combined strike rate is 58.8, the only team whose seamers have a combined strike-rate of below 73.00. They are also the only team with a seam bowler who has taken a ten-for. But, that’s the thing with stats: they can completely contradict each other. South Africa has never played a Test at Mohali.
Back in 2013, almost 20 wickets fell to spinners. The two leading wicket takers on this ground are both spinners – Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. Javagal Srinath, Ishant Sharma, and Zaheer Khan also feature in the top five. Australia’s Peter Siddle took ten wickets in two Tests here.
The South Africa squad isn’t stuck for options at the moment with Imran Tahir, Dane Piedt and Simon Harmer all slogging it out for a spot in the starting XI. With Duminy unlikely to play – he would offer an additional spin option – South Africa will have to juggle their options carefully. A frontline spinner is imperative, but they will have to seek their support from the part-time dibbly-dobbly bowling of Dean Elgar or Stiaan van Zyl, if they want to maintain a strong batting line-up.
While some of the finer details are an uncertainty, one thing South Africa does know for sure, is that Dale Steyn has an excellent record on the subcontinent. He has 26 wickets in five Tests in India, at an eye-watering average of 20.23, including best match figures of 10 for 108.
These stats are hardly those of a player influenced by conditions, and that has been South Africa’s greatest strength. The ability to bowl fast through the air – and more importantly control that speed – has been one of South Africa’s greatest assets in India. Steyn, and Allan Donald before him, have done this well. Morkel, too, is good at extracting pace and bounce from Indian surfaces. Kagiso Rabada showed in the limited-overs game that you do not need to be a slow bowler to be successful here, you just need to be skilful. This is backed up by Steyn’s stats in India; almost three quarters of the wickets he has picked up here were either bowled, or caught leg before. That takes an exceptional amount of skill.
Making India’s batsmen play will be central to South Africa’s success in India. The odd short ball, to rough the batsmen up, and ensure they do not settle, is a welcome addition. That is not how South Africa will get their wickets. They have to exploit India’s largely inexperienced (in terms of test cricket) batting line-up. Playing on the impatient, immaturity of the line-up will reap its rewards. South Africa’s bowlers know how to play cat-and-mouse, and with youngsters wanting to prove themselves, they have the prefect platform for their game. Not a single top or middle order Indian batsman has played 40 Tests, and if South Africa’s bowlers play their cards right, they will be ripe for the picking.
The Proteas have another stat in their favour. That South Africa have not lost a series away from home since 2006 is something you’ll hear often, over the course of the next six or so weeks. But they have also not beaten India on their own turf in that same time period, having drawn both series they have played here. The senior group of the team have been around since that record was established and, in a way, this is their final frontier as they head into their twilight years. South Africa have, however, beaten India by an innings thrice since 1996 – the only team to achieve an innings victory in India.
The ICC rankings predictor suggests that South Africa will remain top-ranked, even if they lose the series 4-0, and Australia, currently ranked second, beat New Zealand 3-0 in their Test series. But this South African team are by no means a side who do things by half measures. Over the last ten years they have cultivated a culture of winning and, more importantly, digging themselves out of a hole when their backs are against the wall. In the little cricket that was played in Bangladesh, they were unconvincing and will, in all likelihood, suffer from their usual “slow start syndrome” as the Test series begins. If they get over that hump unscathed, it should be smooth sailing. DM