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.