For a moment, it seemed as if it wouldn't be the same old story of capitulation of the travelling batsmen to spin on Indian soil. For a moment, it seemed as if the Proteas would be able to handle the big scoreboard pressure which very few teams have managed to. For a moment, it seemed as if the team in transition would pull off a heroic draw. But then, they imploded in the second innings of the Vizag Test and all the hopes came crashing down like a drunken party goer getting out of a taxi late in the night.
The resistance from the South African lower-order might have restored some confidence after a drastic collapse to 70/8 in the second innings, yet the collapse is bound to play on their minds as they head into the second Test at Pune. Yes, this was an improved showing from four years ago where they went down without a fight. However, that second innings batting failure could have very well allowed the doubts to creep into the minds through the backdoor.
Captain Faf du Plessis was 'proud' of the way Proteas batted in the first innings and for him it was a 'real line in the sand'. Dean Elgar, Du Plessis and Quinton de Kock mixed caution with aggression in the right balance to put the bowlers under pressure. There was a good balance of attack and defence. Very few visiting batsmen had shown such audacity as De Kock displayed against the spinners on Indian wickets.
The Proteas batsmen need to follow the same template of the first innings from Vizag in the Pune Test. They have learnt from the last tour and the learning process is still on. What they need to add to their armoury is better resilience and application in tougher conditions on the fourth and fifth days.
As Theunis de Bruyn and Temba Bavuma struggled with their decision making, it wouldn't be a bad idea for the captain or even De Kock to move up in the order to provide more stability in the middle-order. Something which also resonated with the recently retired Hashim Amla as well.
"In terms of our batting strategy, I think an idea we can float around is maybe getting Faf up the order," Amla said during a television commentary stint as reported by the SA Cricket Mag.
"We can maybe get him up to three or four. When I look at most teams around the world, most of them have their best batsman batting at four. Steven Smith for Australia, Joe Root for England, Virat Kohli for India.
"That’s an idea for the next Test – get your best place in early. That can settle the nerves for everybody. The idea that he is number five now is to have things settled in the middle order. Another idea is to get him up the order to settle it earlier.
"He could then get out earlier, yes, but as a percentage, it might just help. It would be better having the other guys coming in at 100-2 rather than 20-3.’
While the batting needs improvement, there is a big step up needed in the spin department. In the first hour of the Vizag Test, Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada had bowled tight incisive spells to trouble Rohit Sharma and Mayank Agarwal, however, that pressure was released by the spinners who went for plenty.
One could easily spot the gulf in class between the Indian and South African spinners. The way Ravichandran Ashwin bowled in the first innings, even when the conditions looked good for batting, and picked seven wickets, was a testament to the discipline and consistent threat he possesses. There is so much to learn from him for the Protea spinners, about how the relentless operations of his brain keep the batsmen guessing.
The Proteas went in with three spinners in Dane Piedt, Senuran Muthusamy and Keshav Maharaj, in Vizag but it ended up proving to be their weakest link. The Indian batsmen targeted the spinners periodically to release the pressure built by the pacers. The trio averaged 76.75, gave away runs at 4.65 per over and struck at 99 deliveries per wicket. In comparison, Indian spinners averaged 32, struck every 61 balls and gave away runs at 3.12 an over, and this is where the difference between the two sides in the first Test lies.
The spinners didn't vindicate the team management's trust. Their pacers did the holding job which exerted some sort of control but there were high expectations from the spinners. With the Pune track expected to turn more than Vizag, Du Plessis faces the conundrum of whether to stick with the strategy of three spinners or go in with their strength and add an extra pacer or further add a batsman.
With Maharaj spearheading the spin attack and Muthusamy impressing with his application and technique against spin in batting, Piedt might be the one who could have to make way after conceding 209 runs from 36 overs at an economy rate of 5.72 and picking up just one wicket. Anrich Nortje or Lungi Ngidi could come in if the visitors decide to go in with an extra pacer. Finding that right balance will be the key for Du Plessis.
The Proteas captain expects the Pune pitch to turn more than Vizag and that will increase expectations from the spinners regardless of how many are picked.
"The turf is a little bit more red, more spinning conditions, so expecting the ball to spin a little bit more from the straight. I am not a pitch expert but I think it will take a bit more turn than the first Test," Du Plessis said in the pre-match conference.
"We are thinking what's going to be our most aggressive options to get 20 wickets. We didn't get 20 wickets the first Test and that's something I don't want to do again. We are planning for a pitch that will be a bit drier and that will spin," he added.
The Proteas captain will demand more incision and control from their spin attack in Pune. The spinners lacked accuracy — time and again, the short and wide balls would be delivered and dispatched to the fence — and they didn't look as threatening as Ashwin or Jadeja. They need to create and sustain pressure for long on the Indian batsmen, who looked assured against the tweakers, and try and come up with ways of countering them using their feet.
They would look to rewind the clock back to 2017 when Australia beat India at their own game in Pune. In the only Test played so far at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium, Aussie left-arm spinner Steve O'Keefe wove a web of accuracy and guile to ransack 12 Indian wickets in the match and bundle India out for 105 and 107, their fourth-lowest match total ever.
The Australian spinner changed his seam and arm angles cleverly and bowled with accuracy. He wasn't depending on prodigious turn, it was just about discipline and accuracy by consistently bowling in the right areas. The Proteas spinners need to imbibe that accuracy.
It has rained incessantly in Pune for the past week and there is forecast of thunderstorms during the Test, so it will be interesting to see how the pitch plays.
For India, it was a near perfect Test in Vizag. The spin twins showed why they are one of the best in the world at home. And 'second innings' Shami again underlined the importance of his contribution despite being the second-choice pacer. Still, Rohit Sharma's twin centuries would have been the most satisfying for India as he vindicated the continuous faith shown in the Mumbai batsman by the team management.
More than the first innings, it was the way Rohit batted in the second innings that underlines his value to the side. He's being looked at as the Virender Sehwag replacement, someone who could set up and win matches as well. And that's what he did in the second innings by providing the acceleration and scoring at a strike rate of 85.23 while also instilling that urgency in Cheteshwar Pujara to set the match up on Day 4. Rohit employed his ODI batting template in the Vizag Test and once he gets into his zone, he becomes unstoppable — something which the Proteas experienced in the first Test. Having hit the refresh button on his Test career, Rohit would be desperately vying for consistency. Finding a way to stop Rohit would also be paramount for the Proteas.
Mayank's double ton in the first innings along with Pujara's breezy 81 in the second would have eased the top order concerns for India. Rohit and Mayank got together to register first century opening partnership for India after 24 innings while Pujara struck form after a string of low scores — 2,25, 27, 6 and 6 — in the last five innings before hitting 81 in the second innings.
After a big win, India wouldn't look to tinker with the winning combination.
A trip to Pune will undoubtedly bring back memories of the Australia Test. The pitch had come under the scanner with the spinners picking up 31 wickets and the game getting over in three days. That track was later rated poor by the ICC, however, Kohli hadn't found anything wrong with the pitch. With confidence running high after a positive start to the World Test Championship, India would now look to exorcise the ghosts of that loss from two years ago which ended their 19-Test unbeaten streak.
South Africa haven't won a Test in India in nine years since that innings win in Nagpur in 2010, they haven't won a series in India since 2000. It will be a test of their mental strength, especially after the final day disappointment in Vizag.
"It's about mentally how we are able to put away the last day that we didn't play well and make sure we are ready to come back for the next, hungry to put in a big performance," du Plesses said after the Vizag Test.
For that, Du Plessis' spinners would need to take a leaf out of O'Keefe's heroics two years ago and the batsmen need to employ the first innings' template from Vizag in order to stay alive in the series.