Pitch or poor Proteas? It’s both

2015-11-26 19:32
Imran Tahir (Gallo Images)

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 conditions.

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 trickery.

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 bat.

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 Proteas.

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.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


Read more on:    india  |  proteas  |  hashim amla  |  simon harmer  |  cricket

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