Shambolic. Spineless. Shocking.
These are all adjectives that can be used – and are being used – to describe a second straight catastrophic Test tour to India for the South African cricket team. At least the last time around, in 2015, they had the pitches to blame – one of which was bad enough to get an ICC warning.
But what does one say about this latest ordeal?
Let’s be fair, though. This is, as Faf du Plessis said at the end of it all, “the toughest tour on the circuit”. It’s very nearly seven years since India last lost a Test series at home. In these seven years, they’ve only lost one Test match. Since Virat Kohli became captain, they’ve won 20 out of 26 games.
India are, indisputably, the world’s leading Test team.
And what about South Africa? Even before the torture that was this three-Test campaign began, the Proteas had endured, undeniably, their worst year of cricket since readmission.
2019 began with a Test series defeat, at home (where they had never lost a series to an Asian nation), to Sri Lanka (who had pretty much forgotten to win). It segued into South Africa’s worst-ever World Cup, where they finished level on points with Bangladesh, and only ahead of West Indies and Afghanistan. Still reeling from the shock loss of one AB de Villiers last year, they had to now bid farewell to another champion in Hashim Amla.
They couldn’t possibly have chosen a more inopportune time to make the Eastward travels to India.
It will pinch, all the more so, to a nation with a proud history in the game; one that went nearly nine years undefeated on all their Test-match travels prior to that ill-fated India tour in 2015.
Just how bad, exactly, were they?
Batting: A far cry from the days of AB, Amla & Smith
You know what, this aspect of things for South Africa actually started quite brightly. This was a team that had averaged less than 150 runs per innings from seven attempts the last time they were in this part of the world, so imagine the satisfaction at churning out 431 in the first innings at Vizag – with Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock, two batsmen they expect a lot from given their record and ability, both hitting centuries and negating the threat of R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja on a third-day wicket.
That, sadly, was the start and the end of all good things for the Proteas on this trip.
In five subsequent innings, South Africa only went beyond 200 once; their three second innings scores were 191, 189 and 133.
They fielded seven specialist batsmen through the course of the series, and all told, those seven averaged 23.94 from a combined 35 innings – remove Elgar and de Kock’s hundreds from the first innings at Vizag, and that average plummets further to a beyond-abject 16.97.
India’s batsmen, in comparison, averaged 74.84 in the series, with eight centuries – three of which were converted into doubles.
As for Elgar and De Kock, after impressing so much the first time around, they tallied 72 and 45 runs, respectively, from their next five outings.
The likes of Aiden Markram, Theunis de Bruyn and Temba Bavuma – especially Bavuma – have some soul-searching to do, while the team management, too, could do them a favour by making their roles in the side a little more clear.
Spinners: Promise with the bat, pathetic with the ball
South Africa played a total of four spinners in the three Tests: Keshav Maharaj, Senuran Muthusamy, Dane Piedt and George Linde. All four displayed laudable ability with bat in hand – even outperforming the ‘recognised’ batsmen to finish with a combined average of 29 (compared to 23.94 for the specialists).
Here’s the problem: they weren’t chosen in the XI for their batting. And in their primary suit, all, with the possible exception of Linde, were outright no-shows.
Maharaj, who showed immense heart in registering his maiden international half-century in the first innings at Pune, was the biggest disappointment with the ball: six wickets, at an average above 85, while conceding more than four runs per over, and requiring more than 21 overs per breakthrough.
Piedt and Muthusamy, meanwhile, were fortunate to even get a second game on the tour – Muthusamy retaining his spot for the Pune Test owing to his stoic batting at Vizag, and Piedt making the cut for Ranchi following Maharaj’s tour-ending shoulder injury. Both accounted for just the two wickets each, a majority of which came when batsmen were going all-out as India pressed for a declaration.
As the fourth and fifth bowlers, the duo could have been an asset even without taking wickets, if they could just keep things tight enough for a passage of play to allow periods of rest to the fast bowlers. Muthusamy’s economy rate? 4.80. Piedt’s? An abysmal 5.74.
In the end analysis, South Africa’s spinners ended with 15 wickets – averaging 78.93, conceding 4.61 runs per over, needing 17 overs for every wicket.
India’s spinners? 32 wickets at 27.18, an economy rate of 2.72 and a wicket every 10 overs.
Pace: The least expected let-down?
That India’s spinners established daylight between themselves and their South African counterparts came as no surprise. But this series, unlike the last time these sides met in India, was played on tracks that were ‘sporting’ – and, in the words of the Proteas skipper himself, had something for everybody.
Which means a pace attack featuring renowned assets in Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander, along with lung-busting potential in Lungi Ngidi and Anrich Nortje, should have had a good time, right? Wrong.
South Africa’s pacers endured their worst Test series of this century, and their second-worst of all-time – an average of 70.20 for a haul of 10 wickets. India’s pace battery, on the other hand, scalped 26 of the 60 South African wickets to fall at an average of 17.50.
The gulf exposes itself as the largest when you look at the ability to breakthrough; while India’s pacers took just 35 balls per wicket – their second-best return for any home series – the South African seamers needed, on average, 132 balls (or 22 overs) to make any dents in the Indian batting.
Rabada took more than double the number of wickets the rest of his fellow pacers managed – even then, seven wickets at 40.71 apiece do not read well if you are among the best fast bowlers of the generation.
The times when Dale Steyn was raiding through India’s greatest-ever batting lineup on tracks that offered little purchase seem light years away.
Captaincy: What’s up with Faf?
This has nothing to do with the fact that he just can’t get a toss right – 10 lost tosses in a row now in Asia, the last of which, in Ranchi, came despite the changed ‘tactic’ of bringing Bavuma along to make the call.
But the burden of a year of dismay told all the way on du Plessis’ face, and in his decisions.
At Vizag, he did little to even attempt to slow down India’s batsmen as they charged along at nearly five runs an over in the second innings to set up a fourth innings target that should never have been anywhere close to the 400 it eventually was.
At Pune, he was guilty of grossly under-utilising Rabada even as he enjoyed his most fruitful passage of the tour on the opening day.
By the time the caravan moved to Ranchi, du Plessis looked completely bereft of any ideas; the flight back home couldn’t come soon enough.
Why it baffles as much as it does, even considering all the limitations of his travelling party, is because du Plessis has stood out as a shrewd tactician in his years in charge. But along with the loss of his senior colleagues, and the spate of lost games across formats, the South African captain also appears to have lost his mojo.
While he remains invaluable as a batsman for the Proteas, especially given the tremendous vacuum in the middle order, du Plessis is now beyond 35. Is it time for some tough decisions to be taken? It might not be the worst idea.