"We certainly weren't outplayed in this game."
Anyone who heard Temba Bavuma's claims after India beat South Africa by seven wickets at Mohali in the second T20I would be well within their rights to question his remark. The Proteas had appeared so clueless in the face of Virat Kohli's perfectionism in run chases that the first half of the match was quickly forgotten.
After being reduced to 31 for one in the fourth over, Quinton de Kock and Bavuma had strung together a 57-run partnership in just over seven overs to give South Africa's innings some early momentum. Until the partnership was broken, the Proteas were going at nearly eight runs per over with little undue risk taken thanks to some robust batting by De Kock and Bavuma.
Pivotal to the South African pair's approach was the manner in which they handled the Indian spinners. After playing out five dots in an over from Washington Sundar at the onset of the partnership, De Kock and Bavuma did not concede a single dot ball to spin in the remaining overs of their partnership, including 16 singles and two fours from Ravindra Jadeja's bowling during their partnership.
De Kock, in particular, was aggressive against the spinners, after he began with a boundary off Washington's first ball he faced in the first over of the innings. At Bengaluru, de Kock continued his intent of putting the off-spinner – a perennial weakness for the southpaw – off his line of attack early. A boundary off the first delivery set the ball rolling for De Kock in Bengaluru as well.
Like at Mohali, Bavuma offered him strong support even after India managed to break through the opening pair. Yet again, in the short period where the two batted together, De Kock and Bavuma displayed an improved mindset against the spinners.
Bavuma was off the mark against spinners with a paddle sweep for a couple of runs. Having arrived early in India to attend the spin camps, Bavuma has had a good hang of the conditions on offer. A predominantly back foot player, Bavuma had been relentless in his efforts to master the front foot defensive stroke against spinners in the spin camp Cricket South Africa conducted this year.
He would later go on to captain the South Africa A side in the five-match unofficial ODI series. Even if Bavuma was dismissed by spinners three times – twice to Krunal Pandya and once to Yuzvendra Chahal – in that series, he had started forging a better approach against spinners in general.
At Bengaluru, in the four overs of spin De Kock and Bavuma faced in their partnership – 11 singles, two doubles, two sixes and a four – were scored. The intent was pretty clear – to not let the spinners settle into a rhythm by consistently rotating strike against them.
In the 64-run stand in 6.4 overs, De Kock dug into the bowling while Bavuma stuck to his plan of not consuming too many dots. It is this contrasting approach that makes them as potent a force in the lower middle-order in the Test side too.
Bavuma and De Kock are both short in physical stature. This should ideally make it easier for bowlers to bowl to one plan against them. But the left-right combo along with the contrasting methods they have perfectly complemented each other and make life difficult for opposition bowlers in the longer formats too.
After a promising sign of their Test match compatibility at Hobart in 2016, the duo played a mind-blowing rescue act at Wellington in the following year, to setup a first innings lead and a Test match win. Reeling at 94/6, Bavuma (89) and De Kock (91) put on 160 for the seventh wicket with both overcoming minor hurdles along the way. If De Kock was warding off his weakness against off-spin after falling to Jeetan Patel four successive times, Bavuma was in search for consistency after a run of seven successive innings before the series without crossing 25.
In India this time around, the two have a bigger role to fulfill. While Bavuma has been elevated to Test vice-captaincy, De Kock is openly identified as part of the leadership group and a potential successor to Faf du Plessis across formats. Unlike in Hobart or in Wellington, they will have Indian spinners armed with an old ball bowling on dust bowls to contend with while batting in the lower middle-order in the forthcoming Test series.
If Mohali and Bengaluru are anything to go by – even if the format is vastly different – the two have equipped themselves for the challenge better than some of their mates had done four years ago. By consistently rotating strike, emphatically unleashing sweep shots and regularly putting away bad balls, De Kock and Bavuma have shown that they can challenge India's spinners. The red ball game will bring a bigger test for sure but if the two can do the same for a much longer duration, South Africa might just be able to irk India with a lower-order fight.
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