Naive selection only buried Proteas deeper

2019-10-24 15:30
Vernon Philander
Vernon Philander (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - A Test series in India, given the generally runs-heavy pitches and often stifling weather conditions, tends to be more of a “marathon” experience than a sprint.

South Africa, I suspect, dubiously adopted too much of the latter approach when it came to both their selection and tactics in the hugely unedifying 0-3 recent massacre.

Bearing in mind both their previous result in the country (also 0-3, in 2015/16, albeit from a four-Test series then) and recent, frail track record in the five-day format, the Proteas’ first concern, at least to my mind, should have been to do their level best “not to lose”, to doggedly eat up time, before even harbouring any ambitious thoughts of an upset pilfering of the series spoils.

In other words, do everything possible to get a mental foothold of sorts on the series by aiming for an early stalemate - something that would have been extremely heartening for the new, Enoch Nkwe-headed coaching regime at Visakhapatnam, for example, and at least begun to get under the skins of the routinely confidence-oozing host nation.

Instead the Proteas were beaten by 203 runs in what would end up being their most competitive of the three clashes; the other two Indian wins were achieved by particularly gaping, innings-and-plenty margins.

Shouldn’t the over-riding SA consideration, in the scene-setting opening encounter, have been to do everything possible to deny India the critical “20 wickets” job needed to engineer victory?

The first step to doing that - in this age where so few teams worldwide can sport a Jacques Kallis-like true-blue all-rounder - would have been to unapologetically load the batting: seven specialists, including wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock in the actual No 7 berth where he has statistically enjoyed his best successes over the course of time.

But by limiting the frontline batting to six, I instantly had an overwhelming feeling of foreboding for that first Test, a fear only fuelled by how fragile and inconsistent the Proteas’ batting had been over the course of several prior series. 

Yes, new cap Senuran Muthusamy, introduced as a bridging sort of player in the lower middle-order, showed some welcome resilience both times at the crease in Visakhapatnam, but he was chosen primarily as a bowler and captain Faf du Plessis showed noticeably little faith in him (as a second left-arm option, dubious in itself, to first-choice Keshav Maharaj) at his supposedly main trade.

Muthusamy, always struggling to keep a lid on the Indian run tempo, sent down only 15 of 136 overs in India’s 500-plus first innings, and then even more inexplicably a pitiful three in their merry old second, where a further 323 runs were clobbered at almost five runs to the over before the declaration.

That first Test, incidentally, was just the beginning of my own puzzlement that Dean Elgar’s useful enough part-time slow fare was employed so sparingly in the series (a token five overs) - considering that he had offered a solid 43 overs in the 2015/16 combat there and picked up five wickets at a praiseworthy average of 27.

But as the series moved onward, the Proteas only continued their sense of denial over their so long evident batting shortcomings, still insisting on just six front-liners and giving the Indians a gleeful sense, frankly even when South Africa went two down (too often wretchedly quickly), that a fluffy tail was really just around the corner.

By the time the third and final Test came around at Ranchi, the visitors even more lamentably threw in the towel, in structural batting depth terms, by asking debutant left-arm spinner George Linde to occupy No 7 - this for a player with a first-class batting average of 26 and just one career century at that more humble level.

Rather like Muthusamy, he did so quite pluckily but, with respect, that’s not exactly “Adam Gilchrist” from a figures perspective in that not unimportant berth, is it?

Which brings me conveniently around to the surprise omission - unless there were some wellness/niggle-related issues we didn’t get told about - of experienced warhorse Vernon Philander from the third Test.

While there were some rightful concerns that he was down on pace even by his relatively limited standards in the first two Tests, the seam maestro did one thing virtually no other regular bowler could manage for South Africa in the series: be suitably economical.

Nobody came close to matching his concession rate of only 2.58 runs per over across the 60 he sent down at Visakhapatnam and Pune.

Indeed, more outright haemorrhaging - which only gave the Indians further, huge tracts of available time to dismantle their foes - was a depressingly too common feature among SA bowlers.

So here, at least, was someone serving as some sort of defiant rot-stopper during the fiasco, for crying out loud.

Philander’s “reward”? The third-Test chop.

Was it simply forgotten, too, that the man from Ravensmead sometimes looks one of the more technically accomplished and patient of SA batsmen in the lean present era for that trade?

He’d shown his renowned character at the crease in Pune, having put behind him the disappointment of a rare “pair” in the first Test by soaking up more deliveries than any compatriot (192) in scoring 44 not out in the first innings and then making third top score of 37 in the second: once again, no South African survived as many balls.

Look, the harsh truth is that the current Proteas, with their mounting dents and leaks in so many departments, would probably have been whipped in the series regardless of how they selected for, and then strategically approached, the trio of contests.

But I steadfastly feel they made India’s task that extra bit easier through their own, frankly worrying ill-judgements …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    india  |  proteas  |  cricket


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