Bruised South Africa need a show of control with the ball

Posted 08/10/2019
Faf du Plessis will be hoping for an improved bowling performance in Pune
Faf du Plessis will be hoping for an improved bowling performance in Pune ©BCCI

When Cheteshwar Pujara authoritatively drove a tossed up Keshav Maharaj delivery to the cover fence on Day 4 in Vizag, it was his fourth boundary - including one which was a lucky inside edge - in eight deliveries. He'd hit two more in the next Maharaj over. It was as if a tight knob had been turned over and loosened in the lengthy drinks break, before which there was a clear struggle to even turn the strike over to his more fluent opening partner.

For as long as they kept one end tight - with restrictive fields from Faf du Plessis - South Africa could still march shoulder-to-shoulder with India after their batsmen put on a 400-plus total. But once the Pujara flip happened, the game spiralled out of South Africa's reach and provided a peek into the challenge that will test them throughout the series. A series that was built up as a test of character for the South African batsmen, has now turned into one for the bowlers and the need for them to have better and consistent control over the course of the game.

South Africa batsmen overcame the overwhelming anticipation of being bullied by the Indian spinners as Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock put on a batting clinic on how to play on a Day 3 Indian pitch. It effectively put the brakes on what's otherwise supposed be a moving day in Test cricket. But what happened at the end of Day 2 gave a hint of what would eventually bring about South Africa's downfall in the game. Maharaj walked into the press conference room with a ball in hand, and said: "I like to fidget [with it] and also get used to the SG ball. It's very different to the Kookaburra ball. Just trying to adapt."

That Maharaj went from picking up nine wickets in a single innings in subcontinental conditions in Sri Lanka last July to being rendered ineffective during India's lead-building phase is a case in point that he - as well as the other South Africa bowlers - are struggling to cope with the switch from Kookaburra balls.

It didn't help South Africa's case that India decided to add a bit of risky dynamism at the top of the order in Rohit Sharma. In the face of his limited-overs instincts, South Africa's failure to sustain pressure and their eventual lack of control with the ball let the game slip away.

"It was difficult to try and slow the game down, obviously bowling a lot of spin. Pace of play was really fast and when they got momentum that they had at that stage, it just felt that it was really difficult to stop the scoring," Du Plessis admitted in his post-match press conference, giving an idea of how he fared in his first Test in India as captain.

There was a clear lack of plan B that allowed India to kick-on after the second drinks break in the first session on Day 4, a point until which the South African skipper had kept India's No. 3 pinned to the crease with his restrictive fields. It worked fine for as long as Dane Piedt bowled to them, but once Pujara forced himself out of the lull and used his feet much better, it became a lesson of angles for du Plessis, as he would admit later.

From this point until the end of the first session when South Africa could finally catch a break, it showed the collective inexperience of the spin troika as they struggled to identify the right pace to bowl on the subcontinent surface while also grappling with length issues. It was evident in the fact that India scored at more than five-an-over in this period and Rohit went on to break a six-hitting record that had stood for 23 years.

South Africa went into the game with what was perceived as an attacking move of playing with three spinners, but the lack of control from the trio played perfectly into the hands of the home side.

Maharaj and Senuran Muthusamy went chasing after the rough spots fuller up the pitch in conditions where a slightly shorter length was doing the trick - as demonstrated very clearly by Ravichandran Ashwin in the first innings with his seven wicket haul. Piedt, who played in the Delhi Test of 2015 but slipped off the radar since, was underwhelming and out of depth in his Test return since 2016.

Such was the contrast in the performances and impact of the two sets of spinners, that it makes a strong case for a re-run and comparative analysis sessions with the video analyst to simply point out - and hammer home - the gulf in execution.

The idea behind picking Vernon Philander ahead of Lungi Ngidi and even Anrich Nortje was perhaps that pacers in India were anyway going to be reduced to a holding role. But Mohammed Shami demonstrated on Day 5 what straight lines - that Philander dutifully stuck to whenever called up on - with a bit of extra pace can do even on such unfriendly conditions.

South Africa would've made their journey from Vizag to Pune with optimism of having scored 400 runs in an innings and the hope of pushing India further at the next opportunity. But as it stands, the onus in Pune will be about how quickly the bowlers can level up and match the batting grit with a show of control with the ball.

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