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99 problems but the pitch ain't one

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South_Africa_India_cricket_Test_battingIndia has been up and down in the past few years, but heading into the Test series against world no.1 ranked South Africa, they were still very much the team to beat. Especially in local conditions, which you would expect them to exploit.

When you think about it, India should never have lost that ODI series to the Proteas. Injury robbed the home team of the mesmerizing Ashwin after bowling just 4 overs, and even without him they stood toe to toe with AB de Villiers’ men.

Well, that was until they played the deciding ODI on a pitch that came onto the bat nicely, and with that the Proteas scored about 2874 runs with just about every batsman getting a hundred off a handful of balls.

So into the Test series, and as expected the pitches suited the Indians and the fit again Ashwin. They took an early advantage over the visitors in a low scoring 1st Test, and now in the 3rd Test at Nagpur they literally broke the collective spirit of the Proteas, beating them with time to spare on the 3rd day and closing out the series.

“The pitches were disgraceful!” people will say… “This is killing Test cricket!” cried others. Bollocks. The Proteas are just in a spot of bother right now, and it’s really a time to assess this, rather than blame foreign conditions.

In that third Test, the Proteas had every opportunity to record one of the greatest Test wins of all time, but the batsmen didn’t kick on enough. What would the pitch critics have said then? Even if a 50 was worth a 100 in those conditions, nobody got to the milestone, and the dismissals stopping them from doing so were often soft.

 

Yes, the pitch was tough and 100% suited to the home team, but it wasn’t unplayable; it was never a 79 all out track. Ashwin was superb, but not impossible to face. This Proteas team just lacks the hallmark fight and tenacity that has defined them throughout their 9 year run of never losing a Test series away from home.

Their first innings in the rain ruined 2nd Test showed this: 214 all out on the same day that India breezed to 80/0. Blame the pitch if it makes you feel better in the short term, but ultimately the problem isn’t 22 yards long, it’s 11 men deep.

Hashim Amla said they have never encountered pressure conditions like this before, a ponderous statement from a ponderous captain right now. Amla’s form in the series has been terrible, failing to adapt with bat in hand and, in the field, taking over 20 overs to get Imran Tahir into the attack after his team got spun out for just 79 in 33 overs, 31 of which were spin.

He seems like a soft target right now, but after years of Graeme Smith just taking care of business, it is impossible not to see his leadership as a concern.

This tour was always going to be the litmus test for the top order, the first real challenge in the post Smith and Kallis era. On paper it looked good, but poor form and lack of adaptation to the conditions has exposed it terribly. Is it the right order? Are the senior players doing enough? Where should AB bat?

From there, the wicket-keeper question is most worrying. Dane Vilas could not have gotten a tougher introduction to Test cricket, but he still needs to be judged accordingly here. Glove work so-so, but with the bat he looks completely out of his depth. He signals the start of a very long tail for the Proteas, something that encourages opposition bowlers, and adds even more pressure on a stuttering top order.

Giving de Villiers the gloves and playing an extra batsman is not the long term answer. When Vilas replaced the ‘green’ de Kock, so the youngster could develop his all-round game, the thinking behind it was accepted. The problem now is that Vilas hasn’t provided the stability that people thought de Kock was lacking, and now they really have to bring back the explosive left-handed batsman, and stick with him.

 

Bowler-wise, well, the Proteas still lack a world class spinner. Do you really think India would have prepared the pitches they did if they had any fear of their opponents’ slow bowlers? Again, blame the pitch all you want, but the Proteas simply couldn’t fight fire with fire.

South Africa never has to worry about the seamers, Kagiso Rabada is an incredible find and will become a seriously good player, and together with Steyn, Morkel and Philander, the category looks good.

The spin, however, is still questionable. Yes Tahir took 5 in that 3rd Test second innings, but I feel that was almost because the batsmen felt obliged to have a go at him. He still fails to build any pressure, and seeing him bowling full tosses in spin friendly conditions is enough to make you lose your lunch. Harmer has potential, but to be fair, opening batsman Dean Elgar often looked the pick of the spinning bunch when thrown the ball!

There will still be some who disregard everything above here as the conditions, in their opinion, were diabolical, but Test cricket has never been for the faint of heart. You roll your sleeves up and fight, and saying India don’t fight fair is just a cop out.

The preparation of the surfaces was not conducive to 5 full days of Test cricket, but a Test they did produce, and sadly the Proteas simply failed.



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Ben Karpinski is a South African sports blogger/MC/tweeter with a heart so broken by the Proteas, t...

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