Cape Town – A lethal cocktail of an underprepared pitch and
their own recent regression as a tough-nut outfit in Test cricket explains
South Africa’s seemingly imminent fall from grace in India.
The wheel spun full circle on a violent day two of the third
Test match on Thursday, with 20 wickets tumbling – more than enough evidence to
suggest a surface inappropriate for the game’s supposedly premier format – and
the beleaguered Proteas in an almost identically precarious position to the
close of the first day.
Once again in the space of 24 hours, they will resume an
innings, this time in pursuit of an unlikely target of 310 to win, with the
same personnel of Stiaan van Zyl and ill-advised night-watchman Imran Tahir
already bundled out ... only this time with a particularly daunting further 278
runs required for victory with eight wickets in hand.
Given that they recorded their worst post-isolation Test
total of 79 the first time around, what price them getting there in conditions
only deteriorating with mounting haste?
With an amazing nine sessions (and anticipated fine weather)
remaining in the contest, we can remove a draw from the possibilities, so the
tourists are on the brink of surrendering their nine-year unbeaten record
abroad unless there are some pronounced heroics to come at the crease and they
dramatically level the series 1-1.
The Proteas have undoubtedly been outwitted for much of the
last three weeks or so in an environment that, for decades, has more often than
not been extremely difficult for visiting teams to get to grips with.
In some ways, too, they may have been unwitting architects
of their own demise, considering their clinical and victorious showings in the
earlier limited-overs portion of the tour.
On altogether truer, notably batting-friendly surfaces then,
they would have urgently forced India into a strategic soul-search and rethink
for the Test series, something to which they were fully entitled.
So the host nation, perhaps by a combination of both design
and some degree of accident, have come up with bone-dry, lotto-like crumblers
where winning the toss is a mighty ally – and they have got that part right on
all three occasions against luckless Hashim Amla so far.
During tumultuous Thursday, and as the pitch again played like
a wholly untrustworthy “day six” sort of beast, knowledgeable critics with
proven personal Test records from around the world – among them the likes of
Michael Vaughan and Matthew Hayden -- took to Twitter with varying degrees of
colourful sentiment to lament the Nagpur battleground landscape.
In a nutshell, they added credibility to a widespread school
of thought, including certain Indian sages, that the pitch is simply not a
fitting one for Test cricket.
Skill and determination are not enough on it; it can nail
you despite those qualities and it is making some fine cricketers – both
established and more rookie -- look unjustly inept.
Nevertheless, defining a poor pitch is a complex and subjective
matter, not unlike futile discussion on the length of a piece of string, and it
brings some “cultural” considerations into play as well.
Those prepared to defend the surface, for example, cannot
simply be pooh-poohed when they ask why two matches in the recent
English-staged Ashes series could end in three days and all of the others in
four, and yet there was considerably less fuss at the time about the batting
Why should slow, low Indian spitting cobras earn more raised
eyebrows than seaming, sometimes high-bouncing mambas elsewhere in the world?
Perhaps David “Bumble” Lloyd put it most lucidly when he
urged people to rail against unsuitable Test pitches wherever they may be
presented, whether at Newlands, Nottingham or Nagpur.
It is almost indisputable, also, that on this one the Indian
battery of spinners have built pressure more effectively than their South
African counterparts because they have bowled more consistently probing,
disciplined lengths to go with their – always anticipated beforehand – greater
All of Simon Harmer, Imran Tahir and JP Duminy, at Nagpur,
have occasionally undone their good, pressure-building strides by sending down rank
half-trackers gratefully dispatched for four and forcing skipper Amla into
retreating his own catching vultures intended to crouch hungrily around the
The precarious environment in this fixture makes it
difficult and overly cruel to make definitive judgements on the immediate or
future suitability to Test cricket of several misfiring members of the under-the-cosh
What has been confirmed is the naivety of certain of their
players in more extreme Subcontinent conditions, a phenomenon that should
always have been expected when you consider how many of the present first XI --
the majority, in fact – are undertaking their first Test series in India.
Long-term good should come of the present woes.
That’s the bright side to consider as the Proteas face a
probably fate-sealing Friday.
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writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing