Another Test, another debate about the pitch. Morne Morkel, however, took the pitch out of the equation and bowled like a beast, but South Africa still face an uphill battle if they hope to get anything positive out of this series. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
For a pace bowler, Morne Morkel has a remarkably gentle nature. His spindly limbs might be somewhat intimidating for the vertically challenged, but he is a nice guy both on and off the pitch. Despite his height – and his pace – he is hardly the snarly, nasty type of fast bowler that some quicks turn into when they step over the white line. But, here’s the thing, when he is bowling like he did on day one of the third Test against India, he does not need to snarl. When Morkel is on song and bowling with pace and bounce, the deliveries whizzing past batsmen’s heads emit all the aggression any bowler will ever need. There is no need for a stare-down or a huff and puff, Morkel just gets on with it.
He will finished the day with three for 35, as South Africa dismissed India for 215 on yet another dustbowl pitch. Their tour so far has been plagued by the “everything that can go wrong, will go wrong” curse. Not only have they had to battle tough batting conditions, they have also been hampered by injuries. Vernon Philander is out of the series and Dale Steyn is also sitting out of this Test with a niggle. It meant that Morkel was the only senior bowler left to lead the attack, and he did so with gusto. South Africa will be hoping that it was not so much gusto, but that Morkel is kaput with injury, too. He had to leave the field towards the end of the first innings to receive some treatment and, although Cricket South Africa insist that it was “nothing serious”, that is what they said when Steyn left the field in the first Test, and he has not been seen bowling since.
These niggles, which have come like a flood, is the price you pay for an aging bowling attack. There is nothing wrong with being older in world sport, but when you have spent a decade or more forcing your body to do something which is completely unnatural to it, you are going to run into problems eventually. For South Africa, it is just sheer rotten luck that it has all happened at once. Still, at least Morkel can relax for a little while. He was well-supported by young Kagiso Rabada, the only other fast bowler in the team. Rabada eased into the role Morkel would usually take on; that of building pressure and tying up an end. Rabada ended the innings with an economy rate of 1.76, the lowest of any of the South African bowlers to bowl more than ten overs.
Simon Harmer, too, adjusted to the spin friendly conditions quickly and picked up four wickets, but Imran Tahir remains unconvincing. On a track where he should have skittled the tail out, the last four wicket partnerships added 90 runs. More often than not, Tahir was not even his captain’s preferred bowler. With two part-time spinners in the side and Tahir clearly back to his old ways of being too predictable in Tests, it is curious that he even made the starting XI. There is a chance for redemption in the second innings if the pitch breaks up as much as it is expected to, but it is hard to see the Tahir experiment lasting beyond this tour. Tahir’s inadequacies stand out so much because of the surface the teams have been lumped with. Like in the first Test in Mohali, Nagpur is very much spin friendly.
That Morkel was able to take the surface out of the equation simply underscores how well he bowled. But that does not mean any talk was shifted away from the surface. The two pitches where play has been possible have caused much consternation. In Mohali, though, the wicket never really turned square, and much of the lack of runs was down to the batsmen’s lack of application. This time, however, the pitch seemed to be falling apart even after the first few hours. A good sweep of the footmarks were needed after just a few hours of play, and balls were often stopping dead before batsmen could get bat on it. Of course home ground advantage plays a big role in Tests, but even India’s own batsmen looked uncomfortable on the pitch in Nagpur, and it’s only going to get worse. Considering South Africa’s vast ineptitude against spin thus far, a massive challenge awaits the visitors over the course of the next few days. DM
South Africa 11 for 2 trail India 215 (Vijay 40, Harmer 4-78, Morkel 3-35) by 204 runs
Photo: South Africa’s Morne Morkel (L) celebrates with his teammates after taking the wicket of India’s Ajinkya Rahane (not pictured) on the first day of their third test cricket match in Nagpur, India, November 25, 2015. REUTERS/Amit Dave.