Cape Town – Quite possibly the best Indian side to have visited South Africa have done the Proteas a massive favour ahead of their longest Test series against old southern foes Australia since 1969/70.
Whatever reservations you may harbour about Virat Kohli and company having arrived here as world No 1, helped by a lopsided succession of recent series in Subcontinent conditions, they turned out to be arguably the toughest team from that country to make the trek since bilateral Test combat began in 1992/93.
Whether the squad of 2017/18, pipped 2-1 overall after a gutsy dead-rubber victory on a controversial Wanderers pitch on Saturday, can be branded collectively as good as or better than some sides of the past – greats like Kapil Dev, Anil Kumble, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid often in their midst, remember – is a matter for debate, but they were almost indisputably more square-jawed and resilient than any other party previously sent to South Africa when judged over the course of the whole series.
With luck, better composure and fewer errors (including howlers in selection) at times, they might even have sneaked the honours here for the first time, although most neutrals will concur that the Proteas were ultimately fitting winners.
They got the result they wanted, captain Faf du Plessis reminding former skipper Shaun Pollock at the post-series presentations at the Bullring that he would have “bitten your hand off for 2-1” at the outset … so broadest mission was accomplished.
Nevertheless, India have helped Du Plessis’s charges shed any delusions of grandeur, if you like, ahead of the four-Test visit of the Baggy Greens in a few weeks’ time.
The generally enthralling series, played on often quirky surfaces that thoroughly examined technique and temperament on the batting front, vitally demonstrated both the strengths and snags of the current Proteas arsenal, in the first exposure to a fellow “big four” nation since Ottis Gibson became head coach.
Remember that the first half of the summer saw the national side deceptively steamroll two sides – Bangladesh and Zimbabwe respectively -- who barely deserve to sit at the same table as the quartet of superpowers in a Test-level context.
Especially given the forceful way they ended the series (handing Gibson his first reverse in six Tests at the off-field tiller) India stripped South Africa of any threat of complacency about their degree of global mettle.
The premier lesson to be banked, by my book, was that the Proteas simply do not have the depth or confidence in batting right now to risk presenting some of the same, overly “unreliable” tracks witnessed against India when the Australians touch down on our shores.
Much more accustomed to pacey surfaces than the Indians are, let’s face it, batsmen like David Warner and the currently sublime Steve Smith would be suitably up for such a challenge and, no less importantly, the Aussies boast a frontline fast-bowling combo (Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins) that is nastier and potentially more penetrative even than the frisky seam battery India showed off here in the last few weeks.
There was just too much of a lottery-like factor at play too often on pitches during the just-completed series, explaining why bowlers – a hallmark applicable to both teams – tended to look healthier, performance-wise, than batsmen did on the series averages.
Only two batsmen averaged above 40 (Virat Kohli 47.66 and Dean Elgar 41.40) whilst as many as eight bowlers – five South African, three Indian – averaged a stellar 20 or less.
It was brave (and for that reason pretty admirable in many ways, too?) that the Proteas placed their trust in a “six batsmen” policy, but a big complicator turned out to be the inexplicably acute loss of form and self-belief at the crease of wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock at No 6.
Albeit outstanding with the gloves, which should go at least some way to ensuring he doesn’t come close to the guillotine yet – maybe some top-end runs on the likely ODI belters just around the corner will massively help restore normal crease service for the left-hander – De Kock’s virtually series-long collywobbles (71 runs at a flimsy 11.83) meant that nervousness would begin to set in even when South Africa went three or four wickets down, considering the fluffiness of their tail.
Even at this relatively long range, I have a suspicion that the SA brains trust may be inclined to veer back toward seven batsmen – so the culling of a fifth specialist bowler -- when the Aussie hostilities begin at Kingsmead on March 1.
Yes, he has his critics because he often fails to convert patient vigils into really major scores, but I steadfastly maintain that the technical tightness and nuggety qualities of Temba Bavuma still have a place somewhere in the SA middle order; he is at least a good foil for the more extrovert stroke-players like AB de Villiers and De Kock.
Bavuma, who also hikes fielding standards a great deal, ought to be fit again from a finger injury well in time for the Australian series; remember that he made some key runs in the pivotal first two Tests of the triumphant three-match tour Down Under in 2016/17.
A further lesson from the India series? Five fast bowlers in one Proteas attack (on the spiteful Wanderers track, where they positively screamed out for a longer batting line-up) is simply too many for a captain to have to administer, and Andile Phehlukwayo, who somehow looks to have so much more promise as a limited-overs player right now, sent down a miserly 10 overs throughout the match.
As that cerebral former SA seamer and national selector Craig Matthews reminded me in a Twitter chat: “Still to see a five-seamer attack work. One of them is always hardly used.”
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