Here we go again. Unless South Africa put on the biggest fight back in their history of playing cricket, the third Test against India will be over within three days. In two days, 32 wickets have fallen in Nagpur on a dustbowl pitch that has needed more sweeping than a Cape Town stoep when the South Easter is blowing. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
After losing the toss and being made to bowl first, South Africa dismissed India for 215 in their first innings, largely thanks to the efforts of Morne Morkel. Then, in their reply, all hell broke loose.
South Africa slumped to their lowest total in Tests since readmission on day two, out for 79. If you were watching in real time you would have been forgiven for thinking that you are watching a highlight reel, such was the frequency of the wickets that fell.
The top five, excluding night-watchman Imran Tahir, managed a grand total of 97 minutes at the crease between them, with the bulk of those minutes coming from two players – Dean Elgar (36 minutes) and Faf du Plessis (21 minutes). As the Proteas plummeted to new depths, the conversation once again turned to the surface that has been prepared.
Just like in the first Test, there was much clenching. However, unlike in Mohali, this wicket actually turned square from day one. It was a dustbowl and quite obviously designed to exploit South Africa’s weakness not just against spin, but of their own inexperienced and erratic spinners. There is no way that this track is fit for going five days, but the angst surrounding the surface should not excuse South Africa’s failings with the bat.
Make no mistake, this is a hellish surface to bat on. For those who prefer their Test cricket to ebb and flow, this is ghastly viewing. Unpleasant to bat on, sure, but certainly not impossible. Lest we forget, India were 96-2 in their second innings, before Imran Tahir caused a massive collapse. Let’s not beat around the bush, the surfaces South Africa have been faced with have clearly been prepared this way for a reason. India have sacrificed buckets of runs for wickets which gives them the upper hand through their bowlers, and it has worked, but the pitch is not the only perp in this horror film.
South Africa’s batting – both in Mohali and in Nagpur – has left much to be desired. For a pitch that some have deemed “unplayable”, South Africa sure managed to play plenty of stupid shots which more often than not cost them their wickets. There is no way that this pitch was a 79-all out wicket. South Africa’s batsmen simply did not trust their defence and lacked the patience to engineer something significant after being quite clearly scarred in Mohali.
South African coach Russell Domingo said that South Africa’s attacking approach – which cost them on more than one occasion – was all part of the plan.
“It was part of it (the plan), but I think it has been shown that if you just sit there and look to absorb without trying to score, you will get a ball that will get you out,” he said. “So the plan was not to play loosely, but look to score. We want to be positive in our defence and positive when we are attacking. It didn’t work this morning, unfortunately, but the guys who have got runs have looked to score. We are going to look to score tomorrow, because there is no way that we will block out for three days.”
The timing of South Africa’s scoring shots, however, was dubious in Mohali and has been dubious in Nagpur, too. While boundaries do puncture the pressure, the humble single has been vastly underrated on this tour. The pitches that South Africa have encountered have merely served as another way to spook the visitors, a reminder of just how intensely mental the longest format of the game is.
South Africa should actually be quite flattered that India seemingly thinks so highly of them. On previous tours to the sub-continent, the Proteas have been exceptional in taking the surface out of the equation. This time, it’s been nearly impossible to do, but Morne Morkel managed just fine on day one in Nagpur. Whether preparing such surfaces says something about India’s belief in themselves, and thinking that they can only beat South Africa by taking home ground advantage to the extremes is up to you to decide.
The debate around pitches and how much they should favour the homeside will rage on. In next season’s County Championship in England, the toss will be done away with in the second division with the visiting team being allowed to choose what they want to do in order to encourage “fairer” surfaces. Internationally, the idea has some legs, but also some risks. After all, would a dull pitch being prepared where runs are piled on out of fear of being too much in favour of the side batting first cause just as much consternation? DM
South Africa require another 278 runs with 8 wickets remaining
India: 215 & 173 (Murali Vijay 40, Shikhar Dhawan 39; Morne Morkel 3-35, Imran Tahir 5-38)
South Africa: 79 all out & 32-2 (JP Duminy 35; Ravi Ashwin 5-32)
Photo: South Africa’s Imran Tahir (L) bowls past India’s Rohit Sharma during the second day of their third test cricket match in Nagpur, India, November 26, 2015. REUTERS/Amit Dave.