Proteas stare down the barrel

2015-11-25 20:38
Simon Harmer (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – HD Ackerman could not have put it more bluntly: “This innings is the series.”

If the SuperSport pundit and former SA batsman is eventually proved correct – and I am one observer in concurrence with him -- then the Proteas have not made the best start to the key quest to make it a plump one, have they?

The tourists stuttered to 11 for two at stumps on day one of the third Test against India at Nagpur on Wednesday ... only adding weight, really, to the theory that the hosts possibly over-achieved in compiling 215 in their first innings following the sizeable benefit of winning a third toss in a row.

It was the highest total of the series, amazingly, which also sums up just how hazardous the fast-crumbling, abrasive surfaces have been for both batting line-ups, with this one no exception at all to the rule.

Few could quibble, either, with former national coach Eric Simons’s assertion that “we’re watching the end of day five at the end of day one”.

Using that formula, and in the highly unlikely event this contest were to go a full five days anyway, the pitch would be playing like a ridiculously spiteful day-niner by the finish.

In short, a cricketing apocalypse of sorts.

Already, every ball somehow seemed an event during the nine overs – 54 balls not for the faint-hearted, you might say -- South Africa had to negotiate before the close.

The optimistic view would be that the Proteas are really only one wicket down (the labouring Stiaan van Zyl for a duck), given that sacrificing the eccentric Imran Tahir as nightwatchman is no mortal setback.

Quite why this happy-go-lucky swisher has been nominated for that particular role is debatable: am I the only one who traditionally expects the nightwatchman to be a stoic Paul Harris or Ashley Giles type, inclined only to get in line and try to keep the ball out with a straightish bat and firm front foot?

But there are rather more pressing needs to address, with the red-letter one being just how South Africa -- their hopes fast fading of defending a nine-year stint without away Test series defeat – can winkle out a lead of 50 or more that would probably be the requirement to keep them firmly in the contest.

There is widespread agreement, and it may even quietly extend to the visiting dressing room, that anything but getting their noses at least slightly in front on the first dig should spell disaster for the Proteas.

If some mental doubts may be swirling in certain, less experienced South African players’ minds even at this infant stage of the Test match, bear in mind also that India sport the advantage of having inflicted some physical blows too.

One was not of their direct making, in truth, but they would not have been unhappy nevertheless to see a hitherto purposeful Morne Morkel – one of a rare, mere two SA frontline seamers picked – suddenly pull up with a leg twinge of some sort after one ball of his 17th over, having already accounted for three of the Indian top five.

That untimely development, after the big man had shown off fine skills bowling fuller than his standard length, may well have played a part in India’s important recovery from 125 for six to their eventual total 90 runs northward of it.

Then, although the television commentators didn’t make very much of the incident, you have to wonder whether Dean Elgar, who grafted bravely for an unbeaten seven off 30 deliveries, is going to be impeded in any manner as he resumes battle on Thursday by the effects of a fearful direct crack on the left forearm from Ishant Sharma on the hard-to-trust surface.

So when SuperSport’s studio panel all determinedly sung from a “this game is still evenly-poised” song-sheet in their close-of-play analysis, you just got the feeling it was through slightly gritted teeth.

Generally, the South African attack stuck to their first-day task very well: apart from the afore-mentioned Morkel, Kagiso Rabada continued to bowl with a level of gumption and discipline that belies his desperately young age, whilst Simon Harmer picking up four scalps – he did drop a few balls damagingly too short – meant he has advanced to a praiseworthy 19 scalps (average 27) in the format only midway through his fifth Test for the country.

But now the focus shifts, with some intensity, to whether the Proteas, still with their most proven run-scorers available to the cause, can somehow collar India’s hungry trio of blood-sniffing spinners and tee up a superior first-innings score.

If you had offered South Africa a guaranteed 265, for instance, before their slightly stress-laden bedtime on Wednesday, would they have banked it?

I’m not sure debate is even necessary on that one ...

Read more on:    proteas  |  morne morkel  |  dean elgar  |  simon harmer  |  cricket

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