Proteas fell through the cracks

The Proteas’ stoic determination not to say anything about pitch conditions during the Test series in India – at least in public – collapsed at lunchtime on the second day of the third Test this week when head coach Russell Domingo marched on to the field as the players walked off and headed for the head curator, Amar Karlekar.

Perhaps he was merely congratulating him for delivering a playing surface on which South Africa had just been dismissed for 79, their lowest Test score since 1991. It was just what Indian captain Virat Kohli and team director Ravi Shastri had asked for: a dry and broken pitch designed to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the tourists’ batsmen.

Or perhaps, like the vast majority of viewers and ex-players outside of India, he was suggesting that such a surface did not provide a fair contest between bat and ball, that it did nothing to advertise Test cricket, that India would never win abroad, that … you get the picture.

The debate raged around the world and attracted some of the highest-profile names in the game. Former England captain Michael Vaughan said the pitch was “an absolute disgrace” and former Australia captain Michael Clarke said: “A good pitch has something for everyone. Seam and swing early, good for batting, spin on days four and five – someone wins and someone loses.”

It was all irrelevant, of course. It was the same surface for both sets of players and the home side performed immeasurably better with bat and ball. Views on the quality of the pitch were comments on aesthetics, not substance. So what? Virat Kohli and his team were desperate to atone for defeats in both the T20 and the one-day international series that preceded the Tests and were prepared to go to any lengths to do so.


The facts are that South Africa encountered conditions of the most extreme sort and were unable to cope, or even compete. It happened initially in Mohali during the first Test, where the pitch wasn’t quite so broken, and again here. Although the debate about playing conditions for the international game in general may have merit, it provided a smokescreen for the Proteas’ inadequacies.

The questions that should be asked concern the batsmen’s inability to cope with the surfaces and the bowlers’ inability to match their hosts for consistency. Whereas India’s trio of spinners landed as many as 20 consecutive deliveries in exactly the right area, forcing the batsman to play, and relentlessly probed both technique and temperament, the Proteas routinely provided an “escape” ball that relieved the pressure on the Indian batsmen. If India’s spinners bowled 10 full tosses between them, South Africa’s bowled 100.

What are coaches for if not to accept or at least share the responsibility for the performance and results of the team? Even the Australians made use of a local batting consultant on their last tour of India but the Proteas chose not to. They also chose not to spend hours batting on specifically terrible wickets as part of their preparation for the Test series.

When the Indians won the fourth ODI on a dustbowl in Chennai well over a month ago, limited-overs captain MS Dhoni loudly broadcast that, in his opinion, India should play every home game on such surfaces and even suggested that South Africa should start getting used to them. His Chennai Superkings friend, Faf du Plessis, acknowledged this before the first Test.

“We know exactly what to expect,” he said. “There won’t be any grass on them, they will turn and they won’t last five days. They won’t be great cricket wickets.”

But it all made no difference. The senior players and management agreed to an itinerary with just two days of “match” practice and, although the holiday sabbatical in Goa seemed like a good idea at the time, it seems a little inappropriate in hindsight, given the one-sided nature of the series.

So a proud record has finally gone. The second-longest unbeaten away record, spanning 14 series and nine years, is at an end. A new era must begin.

Questions can be asked about India’s long-term intentions in playing on such pitches. Former Proteas head coach and one-time Indian bowling coach Eric Simons said the Nagpur pitch was a reflection of the low opinion Kohli’s team must have about themselves, the fact that they felt the need to introduce such an element of chance into such an important game.

Given the disparity in performance between the teams, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference but it’s interesting to imagine what may have transpired if Hashim Amla had won the toss and the Proteas, somehow, scraped their way to 215 as India did.

At the same time, it could be argued that Kohli and his fellow batsmen proved their selflessness in promoting their spinners to the fore and choosing a back-alley scrap against AB de Villiers and the rest of the South African top order in the full knowledge that nobody would score very many runs.

But that was India’s choice and it will be their problem when they continue to travel to England, Australia and South Africa – and lose heavily.

But they rolled the dice in this series and their team played the best cricket. They are good enough to win on much better pitches and would become an even better team if they choose to do so, but very few Indian supporters will care about that for the foreseeable future. Certainly not the players.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Neil Manthorp
Neil Manthorp works from Cape Town. Talk and write about cricket,golf and most sports. Executive Coach. Cook for the family when at home. Neil Manthorp has over 27405 followers on Twitter.

Related stories

It’s just not cricket

Near Makhanda in the Eastern Cape in the village of Salem is a cricket pitch that is said to be the oldest in the country. Watered by blood and trauma, rolled with frontier nostalgia and contemporary paranoia, how does it play?

The last hours of Solomon Mujuru

Zimbabwean General Solomon Mujuru died in suspicious circumstances in August 2011. This is an edited extract from his recently published biography by Blessing-Miles Tendi

Proteas hungry for first ICC trophy

The women’s side won their first game against England, and have not been shy to admit they have what it takes to win the T20 World Cup

‘Friendly’ Aussies ready for hostile tour

Coach Justin Langer and captain Aaron Finch are hopeful the game will be played in good spirits despite the expectation of crowd jeers

Cool-hand Ngidi scuttles England at the death

The fast bowler assured victory for the Proteas in a nail-biter T20 match

Past Proteas run the rule over new-look team

The South African side showed a mixed bag against England in the ODI series, and now have three T20s to build on the positive aspects
Advertising

The PPE scandal that the Treasury hasn’t touched

Many government officials have been talking tough about dealing with rampant corruption in PPE procurement but the majority won't even release names of who has benefited from the R10-billion spend

ANC still at odds over how to tackle leaders facing...

The ANC’s top six has been mandated to work closely with its integrity committee to tackle claims of corruption against senior party members
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday