South Africa have not played up to scratch in this 4-match Test series against India, with their batting lineup, in particular, failing to produce the goods so far. Most of their batsmen have struggled for runs and, as a result, their highest total in the three innings has been a paltry 214. Having said that, the Indian spinners deserve credit for the way they have used the spinner-friendly conditions to their advantage. This ongoing Test series has been a tale of the Indian spinners – Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, primarily – troubling the established South African batsmen and dismissing them quickly and cheaply. Can South Africa bounce back strongly in the 3rd Test, which starts at the Vidarbha Cricket Association (VCA) Stadium in Nagpur on Wednesday, and put India under the pump for the first time in the series?
The problem with South Africa
South Africa were simply beautiful to watch in the Twenty20 and One-Day International (ODI) legs of their 72-day long tour of India. Their batsmen delivered the goods in almost all the games except the Indore ODI, which India won because of their bowlers’ brilliant display, and the bowling attack, led by Dale Steyn, did not disappoint.
However, since the beginning of the Test series, their batting order has failed to put up the sort of first innings totals that make you feel safe in these dry Indian conditions. The pitch for the first Test in Mohali was dry and helped the spinners, unsurprisingly. South African batsmen, though, made it look like an unplayable pitch. The mainstays of their batting lineup either got out due to misjudgements in line and length of the delivery or just played reckless shots, like Dean Elgar’s unconvincing sweep shot against Ashwin in the first innings.
On the bowling front, their spinners were more than a handful for the Indian batsmen, who did not look at home against the likes of Elgar, Simon Harmer and Imran Tahir, with the trio picking 15 of the 20 Indian wickets in the Test match. The fast bowlers – Steyn, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada – were not effective, but the wicket had little on offer for the seamers from both the outfits. The performance of the spinners in the Mohali Test, especially Elgar’s 4-for in the first innings, would have been of great delight to Hashim Amla and the South African team management.
The mental fragility of the South African batsmen was once again on view in Bengaluru, where, on a benign pitch, they were bundled out for a mere 214 on the first day, with Jadeja and Ashwin picking 4 wickets each. The likes of Faf du Plessis and Elgar got out playing poor shots against Ashwin, who has been too hot to handle for the Proteas batsmen.
Mentally, the South African batsmen have been out of place, failing to mix caution with aggression and deny the Indian spinners with wickets early on in their spells. The lack of a solid foundation at the top has also not helped their cause, with du Plessis having to face the music very early on in the innings and not doing well. Amla, who is a good player of spin and usually delivers under pressure circumstances, has not been his usual self throughout this tour either.
How South Africa can approach the Nagpur Test
Coming to the meat of this article, South Africa’s batting problems need to be resolved first and foremost. Batting at No.3, du Plessis has looked shaky and uncertain in his approach to the Indian spinners, who have bowled with the new ball in each of the three innings. Virat Kohli’s ploy to give Ashwin and Jadeja the new ball has worked wonders for India so far, and there is no reason why the Indian skipper will change what has brought success for India, in the 3rd Test in Nagpur.
AB de Villiers has been South Africa’s best batsman in the Test series, but batted at No.5 so far, to render solidity to the middle order that could otherwise look fragile and not carry a threat to India. I do not think de Villiers can be moved up to No.3 despite his success in these conditions. It, therefore, is a catch-22 situation that South Africa find themselves in, with du Plessis and Amla – both known to play long, marathon-esque innings and have good techniques – struggling against the Indian spinners.
The Nagpur pitch for the third Test is likely to be spinner-friendly, again. In the ongoing Indian domestic season, the Nagpur pitch has seen the spinners dominate proceedings by taking 51 wickets, with the seamers only taking 17. The Proteas, therefore, will find little solace from the first two Tests in the series unless their batsmen can raise their game and provide a challenge to the Indian spinners.
The possible change to the visitors’ batting lineup would be Amla moving up to No.3 and du Plessis dropping down a position. Du Plessis has scored 1 run in 3 innings so far, but is an integral part of South Africa’s batting lineup that, as aforementioned, looks unconvincing and is over-reliant on the big three – Amla, de Villiers and du Plessis. South Africa could also look into the option of bringing in Temba Bavuma, a right-hand batsman, in place of Dane Vilas, asking de Villiers to keep wickets. Bavuma has played just 4 Tests for the Proteas, but in their recent tour of Bangladesh, the diminutive right-hander shone with a gritty 54 in similar conditions while the senior batsmen in the side flopped. Vilas has looked far from solid with the bat, and bringing in Bavuma will lengthen the batting lineup and hopefully, see South Africa put up better resistance as a batting unit.
Coming to their bowling attack, Marchant de Lange has been brought in as cover for Steyn, who is again a doubt for the Nagpur Test. South Africa’s pace spearhead has yet to recover from the groin injury that kept him from featuring in the Bengaluru Test as well. And it does seem like the 10-day gap between the 2nd and 3rd Test has not helped Steyn’s recovery. If Steyn does not play, it will be a huge whammy for South Africa, as the 32-year old speedster is currently one of the world’s best and can be lethal once the SG ball starts to reverse. The 4-man bowling attack from the Bengaluru Test, led by Morne Morkel, could well get a go again in Nagpur, where reverse swing will be possible with the dry and humid conditions of Jamtha.
Batting and not the bowling will be of serious concern to the Proteas ahead of the third Test in Nagpur. South Africa’s coach, Russell Domingo, when talking about Steyn’s injury and de Lange coming in as cover, admitted to the visitors carrying an inexperienced squad, which has a number of players who have not played in India before. He, however, hopes that they can learn from the experience of the first two Test matches.
Mind you, South Africa have played and won a Test match before in Nagpur, at this very ground in Jamtha, and could garner some sort of confidence from their imperious performance five years ago, beating India by an innings and 6 runs. Amla too will have fond memories of this ground where he notched up a mammoth 253*, helping the visitors bat India out of the Test match by posting 558 in their first innings. South Africa will be hoping to repeat history while India, the form team would want to wrap up the series with a win here.