SREELATA S.YELLAMRAZU | 24 OCTOBER, 2019
Mammoth Partnerships Sink South Africa
A three match display of India cashing in, having put in the miles
It is not hard to see where South Africa’s script went so horribly wrong. India walked off with aplomb, sweeping the three Test series and exposing their opponents’ lack of form. Not only did the visitors’ bowling lack incisiveness, leaving India to forge match-winning partnerships, but their batting simply packed no punch.
South Africa had their work cut out for them. Up against the leading Test team in their own den, the excuses were already flying fast. South Africa were carrying the ghosts of their last tour where the pitches deviously came alive to demolish them.
But more importantly, the Proteas were battling the unprecedented, unsettling transition that’s catching them from every corner. To a great extent they have inflicted this on themselves. While trialling a new think tank structure in the dressing room, ironically they were forced to use one of their most attritional tours to play it out.
Not surprisingly they went down hard, losing by 203 runs in the first Test, by an innings and 135 runs in the second, and an innings and 202 runs in the last at Ranchi yesterday.
When a host team rattles the scoreboard to a mammoth extent in each of their first innings – India’s scores were 502 for 7, 601 for 5, and 497 for 9 – the challenge fast becomes insurmountable, with visitors having to catch up and top that performance simply to stay in contention.
With a misfiring bowling attack that fizzled like wet gunpowder, and a batting lineup that looked more fragile with each innings, and clearly lacking in belief, against pace, against spin, ignominy was sure to follow.
It is a shocking performance for South Africa by their own competitive standards. They faced their first follow-on since 2008 and this was the first Indian side to inflict it on them. When Virat Kohli decided to do precisely that at Pune, South Africa were staring at a deficit in excess of 300 runs, just a little more than the captain’s own unbeaten knock of 254.
Across six innings South Africa’s top order featured just once, for the 164 run sixth wicket partnership between Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock in the first Test. The honours on the board for the 8th, 9th, 10th wicket partnerships belonged to the likes of their bowlers, Keshav Maharaj, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada.
This is a serious indication of the pressure the top order are suffocating under. It should be pointed out in the same breath that the only reason India have not grabbed those places is that the Indian batting line up was not put to the test.
In just the first two Tests India had one triple century partnership, one double century partnership and five over 150 runs, in stark contrast to the visitors.
To be fair, South Africa’s problems began even before they set foot on Indian soil. They were always going to be under the pump in India, because playing in India is a monumental challenge and South Africa have not been well placed, particularly in the last couple of years, to meet the challenge even on paper.
They came into the tour not knowing how to place Faf du Plessis in the context of the Twenty20 internationals captaincy. Under pressure to prove a point, Faf’s problems were only compounded, particularly in the aftermath of World Cup, by the many retirements before and after the event, of prolific batsmen such as Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers, and the loss of bowlers such as Dale Steyn to injury-forced retirement, and Morne Morkel and Duanne Olivier, among several others, to the dreaded Kolpak contract.
Nevertheless, South Africa had a couple of golden opportunities they could have exploited.
Despite being such formidable defenders at home – they went into the series with a record ten home Test series wins under their belt – India were looking desperately to resolve their opening woes, and to strike a balance between a belligerent young wicketkeeper and a sturdier sort behind the stumps to stand in his stead.
Rohit Sharma has had one of the most inconsistent Test careers in international cricket, and not for want of talent. Sharma was not a mainstay for the team even last year, and alternately found himself in and out of it. In a case of desperate times, desperate measures the Indian cricket think tank and Sharma himself saw a mutually beneficial risk: opening the batting in Tests.
Giving Rohit company on this rather expeditious mission was the young Mayank Agarwal. South Africa should have spotted their immediate way in. With Sharma nervous about this make-or-break prospect, and Agarwal teetering on the edge of cementing a place in the team, particularly with KL Rahul having fallen out of contention, some early strikes from South Africa could have put the prolific Indian captain under unexpected duress.
Yet they seemed to have little faith in Lungi Ngidi’s ability to withstand the punishment of bowling fast in sweltering weather for long hours on the dustbowls. Their spearhead, Kagiso Rabada, remained the pale shadow of himself that he was in the course of the ICC tournament in England, where for all his pace potential he simply could not find the sting.
What followed was an ominous sign of South Africa’s impending troubles. Rohit Sharma and Mayank Agarwal not only managed to bat out the first morning of the first Test in Vishakapatnam, but notched up only the third 300-plus batting partnership in India’s Test cricket history. The 317 runs they put on gave South Africa a steep hill to climb.
Rohit missed a double century but Mayank made good on the promise. The team made South Africa sweat under the sun for the better part of two days, barring the final hour when the Proteas’ tired, under-pressure batsmen were in for some rigorous testing. Not surprisingly, India scalped three wickets for some thirty runs.
This would only be the preview of times to come. In an almost eerie recreation of events, Faf du Plessis found himself on the wrong side of the toss in the second Test in Pune, which found his team in dire straits under very similar circumstances to the first.
Faf could only go on so much about the challenges of touring India. His team’s only worthy top order partnerships came when Dean Elgar stood his ground for a noteworthy innings of 160 runs. This only after South Africa found themselves staring into the abyss, at four wickets down for 63 runs. Elgar first raised a century stand with du Plessis, then a more encouraging 164 run stand with Quinton de Kock, who also scored a century for himself.
But if that first innings gave South Africa some self-belief, it was not evident in the way they approached the close of the Vizag Test, or Pune, or Ranchi. On the whole the series was just a display of India cashing in after having put in the miles. In innings after innings, South Africa would lose half their team or more for less than a hundred runs.
Faf du Plessis can talk about inexperience till the cows come home. Until they find a way to work around the Kolpak deal hanging in the background like a dark shadow, Cricket South Africa will struggle for consistency in picking talented players and retaining them.
And until they have a formidable think tank secured in the dressing room, and in the selectors’ section, who can rule with authority, accountability and a chain of command, rather than proffering excuses or misplaced optimism as expressed by CSA chief executive Thabang Moroe, South Africa will keep on stumbling. If partnerships keep going the opposition’s way, it will not matter who wears the crown of thorns.