A comforting refusal by South Africa’s batsmen to blame a dry, cracked pitch for their first Test defeat in Mohali last week has contrasted sharply with the sentiment expressed by many of their supporters – that conditions were somehow “unfair” or, at best, “unsporting”.
No less unfair and unsporting, counter the Indians, than a green-grassed surface at the Wanderers or Centurion on which the tourists can be bounced out. Both sorts of Test match finish in three days. Yet many South Africans sneer about the Indians’ inability to play fast bowling, and then whine that a spinning surface is against the spirit of the game. It is absurd.
Jacques Kallis made a particularly salient observation after watching the Mohali match in New York where he was preparing to play in the Sachin Tendulkar/Shane Warne “Masters” cricket indulgence involving a host of former internationals who all, presumably, retired for a good reason before being tempted to return with a thick wodge of greenbacks. At least Kallis remains an active player with Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash T20 league.
“You don’t win a Test match just by preparing a pitch that suits your own bowlers. You’ve still got to perform better than your opposition. If an athlete takes a substance it is called ‘performance enhancing’, not ‘performance winning’,” Kallis reasoned.
“India prepared a turning surface but they also bowled and batted better on it than South Africa did. Our spinners did well but the batsmen need to have better plans and apply themselves better. It was good to hear Hashim [Amla] admit that after the game because you can’t expect things to be better next time unless you make some changes,” Kallis said.
Speculative criticism of the coaching staff – or at least its composition – often follows a poor batting display. Head coach Russell Domingo and his deputy, Adrian Birrell, are assisted by two bowling coaches, Charl Langeveldt and Claude Henderson, but the only specialist batting input in the past two and a half years has come in the form of fleeting visits from Gary Kirsten.
It was of no concern when the top order was comprised exclusively of veterans and geniuses who knew their games intimately and were better off helping themselves and each other through a bad patch, but that may no longer be the case. When Kallis talks of plans he is referring to so much more than where to score runs and when to defend.
Batting against three different spinners on a helpful pitch in the subcontinent is among the stiffest challenges in the game and tests a batsman’s mental resolve as much as, if not more, than his physical skill.
Kallis had the ability to adopt different plans against different bowlers in varying conditions, but key to the success of all of them was never deviating – until the bowler made the mistake, not him.
It led to some epic battles, none greater than when South Africa were set “just” 163 to win on a wretched pitch in Mumbai in 2000 and the great batsman met his match in legendary leg spinner Anil Kumble. In a supreme battle of wills, neither man budged and their battle ground to a halt as Kallis worked his way to 36 from 129 deliveries.South Africa slipped to 128-6 before Mark Boucher threw caution to the wind and swept almost every ball to win the game with six fours in an unbeaten 27 from 32 deliveries.
But it was the belligerence of both batsmen that won the game.
In Mohali a week ago, the Proteas top order, with the exception of AB de Villiers, whose genius allows him to adapt as he goes, appeared not to have plans. If they did, they were unable or unwilling to stick to them and force the bowlers to change theirs. Defence alone does not work, even for a batsman like Kallis.
“You have to know where, and how, you can find a run,” he said. “Sure, you need to get through a few maidens, but every batsman needs to be able to get to the other end.”
Herschelle Gibbs, like Kallis, prided himself on an ability to work the ball into gaps, no matter where it was bowled. In times of extremis, the best batsmen do not necessarily play the ball on its merits but persuade it into places it does not deserve to be sent to.
“The lack of singles and rotation of the strike was the problem,” Gibbs said after the Mohali Test. “You cannot just defend; it’s waiting for the inevitable.”
The good news is that negativity is far from setting in for the Proteas, never mind taking over. This week the squad indulged in as diverse a series of events as ever. While some explored the Bangalore Golf Club’s scenic fairways, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Morné Morkel and Kagiso Rabada were entertained by a prominent local family to a traditional Diwali celebration lunch.
Dale Steyn’s likely unavailability for Saturday’s second Test at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium means a rethink on strategy. Morkel’s return to fitness means a straight swap, but will the tourists once again select five bowlers and just five specialist batsmen, with wicketkeeper Dane Vilas at number six? It was a high-risk, commendable gamble that came close to working. Could they do it again? Not with JP Duminy also fit again to provide back-up spin.
Nine years and 14 series, the second-longest undefeated road trip in Test cricket history. There’s a lot at stake. If this Test is lost, the record almost certainly will be too.