South Africa had a dream run at the start of the India tour, winning the T20 and ODI series handsomely. The Indians were shell-shocked, trying to come to terms with the reversal that had eaten into the euphoria following their Test series win in Sri Lanka.
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India skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni couldn’t stop the Protea juggernaut and the visitors were on cloud nine, with their energetic mix of youth and experience proving too hot to handle.
From batsmen Quinton de Kock to Faf du Plessis and from pacers Dale Steyn to Kagiso Rabada, almost everything clicked for South Africa. The Test series were expected to go on similar lines. But the Indians had one final trick up their sleeve.
The No. 1 test team had not been put under any sustained pressure by the spinners. And if the wickets suited the spinners, any shortcomings could be exposed.
Out came the spin trap in Mohali and South Africa did not know what hit them. Ravichandran Ashwin pegged away around the off stump, used his change of flight and pace astutely, Ravindra Jadeja kept attacking the stumps and let the pitch do the rest while Amit Mishra cleaned up the rest of the line-up. The three spinners took 19 of the 20 wickets in the 108-run triumph.
The Bangalore Test was washed out but the story continued in Nagpur where on an even more helpful pitch, the Indian spinners became almost unplayable. Ashwin took 12 wickets in the game but it was overshadowed by criticism of the wicket which was deemed to be a bit too helpful for the spinners from the first session of the game.
The International Cricket Council demanded a reply from the Indian board after the wicket was declared ‘poor’ by the match referee. Suddenly, the South Africans became the victims of an Indian plan. Virat Kohli and his team-mates complained that they were not being given due credit for their hard work. But the focus on the pitch remained.
The final Test of the tour, in Delhi, provided both teams an opportunity to show their true potential. And it is India who proved their mettle by taking complete control of the Feroz Shah Kotla match, making the most of every opportunity that came their way.
It was by no means a spinner’s paradise. In fact, the South Africans got a lot of help due to the early winter start, reducing the hosts to 138 for six. But India’s lower order held fort and piled on the runs, helped in no small measure by Hashim Amla’s three dropped chances.
Even so, the South Africans had an opportunity to put runs on the board. What we got, instead, was a shocking 121 in less than 50 overs on a fairly placid pitch. This time, even fast bowlers Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav got in on the act, rattling the stumps of top order batsmen.
The Proteas’ second innings effort was much better as they dug their heels in, looking to block their way out of trouble. But the fact is they should have shown that resolve three matches earlier. The damage was long done and as South Africa prepare for the home series against England, they should be a worried lot.
Another four Tests await the South Africans and just because they are playing at home doesn’t mean their problems will disappear. Their batting has been the biggest let down with Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy lacking in confidence and runs under their belt. Openers Dean Elgar and Temba Bavuma are out of form too.
Despite the last innings ‘blocks’ in Delhi, the English bowlers will be raring to have a go at the South African batting order that has been brutally exposed by the Indian bowlers. Their bowling is also looking fragile with a big question mark over the fitness of pace spearhead Dale Styen and reliability of leg-spinner Imran Tahir.
The only bright spark for the Proteas has been Morne Morkel, who has sustained his pace and accuracy brilliantly. The line and length of Kyle Abbott and the energy of 20-year-old Rabada have been good but that alone won’t send shivers down the spine of Alastair Cook, Joe Root and the rest of the English batting.
Even the South African fielding has started to dip and that should send the alarm bells ringing. For the first time in recent memory, South Africa look rattled in all three departments of the game and England have all the firepower and experience to inflict maximum damage.
When the pressure was on during the first three Tests against India, Amla’s team froze like rabbits in front of a headlight.
The No. 1 team in the world looked clueless for a good nine days of Test cricket. India proved that the Proteas can be tamed and even outplayed. And if South Africa don’t raise their game substantially, and seemingly overnight, then they are in for a nightmare against England at home as well.
Good luck to them as on the evidence of their performance in India, a South African revival looks a tall order.