Proteas: Gory ‘sequel’ on the brew

2019-10-03 18:49
Faf du Plessis (Gallo)
Faf du Plessis (Gallo)

Cape Town – It took South Africa 81.6 overs – and well into day two -- to earn their first wicket against India in the opening Test match at Visakhapatnam on Thursday.

By stark contrast, India bagged their first three Proteas scalps within just 17.3 of them.

This is already beginning to look, ominously, like the sort of movie we have seen before.

Thanks to lopsided statistics of that kind, the host nation have seized a vice-like grip: there seems no earthly way Faf du Plessis’s haggard-looking charges can win the clash from here, and they may require the help of the elements – at least a reasonably feasible prospect, based on forecasts – to pilfer a stalemate.

A revisit on this tour of the 2015 agony? It’s difficult to bet too brashly against it.

The one thing that partly pardoned the Proteas of four years ago for their 0-3 drubbing in the same country was the unacceptable quality of several of the too-quick-to-crumble surfaces, which made India relatively bad – at least when it came to batting – but South Africa appreciably worse.

Just a little scarily from what we have witnessed of this one, it is a rather more old-fashioned, benign Subcontinent featherbed … though already the Proteas’ rickety batting has made it look closer to a minefield.

At the outset of their reply on Thursday to India’s pretty behemoth 502 for seven declared (always on the cards after their 200-plus without any activity in the wickets column on Wednesday), television commentator and former Proteas captain and top-order heavyweight Graeme Smith quite passionately outlined the importance of SA making a strong early fist of their reply knock.

“This first innings is vital to get South Africa into this series … someone’s got to play the innings that settles them all down,” he said.

“We’ll play on far worse surfaces than this one on the Subcontinent.”

Instead an old bogeyman, tall off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin (he of 31 wickets at 11.12 in the 2015 debacle) turned renewed tormentor as if with the simple flick of a switch.

By stumps, and the Proteas a pallid 39 for three – the follow-on avoidance target of 303 a formidable way off – Ashwin was already sporting figures of 8-3-9-2, including two of the tourists’ top three: Aiden Markram and Theunis de Bruyn.

Options, then, for Smith’s “someone” to dig in meaningfully are already shrinking, although Dean Elgar is still at the crease and captain Du Plessis (by debatably sliding down the order now to No 6 to avoid the evening gloom and relative carnage) next in.

Another wholly inadvertent positive, maybe, is that Quinton de Kock, who had spent a lot of time under a hot helmet as wicketkeeper, reverts one rung lower also, to his statistically more successful No 7 berth, because of the deployment of a short-lived night watchman in Dane Piedt.

After the best part of two days in the field, something of a fresh start on Friday’s “moving day” in the Test is at least in the offing for a few weary SA souls, and that’s if the weather holds up (they won’t be especially urging that).

The big hallmark of the completed Indian innings was opening batsman Mayank Agarwal turning his maiden century in the format into a double (215): the fourth instance of an Indian achieving that landmark behind Dilip Sardesai, Vinod Kambli and Karun Nair (his was an amazing treble-ton).

But another, more disturbing characteristic was the ineffectualness of two of the three specialist spinners the Proteas opted to enter this match with, Piedt and debutant Senuran Muthusamy.

Although each got a wicket rather after the horse had bolted, their failure to apply any semblance of regular pressure -- even acknowledging that the conditions were largely unhelpful to them for the lion’s share of the Indian innings – meant Du Plessis could not confidently give long spells to either.

Piedt, who was especially culpable for “gift” balls, travelled at more than five and a half runs to the over in his 19, while Muthusamy also went at over four in his lean allocation of 15 – that in a 136-over knock.

If there was a shaft of light, it was in the form of established front-liner Keshav Maharaj’s durability and stamina, especially for so early in a new Test season by the Proteas.

The tall left-armer sent down an energy-sapping 55 overs (more than 40 percent of the SA attack’s total), yet almost seemed to get into his stride better the longer he went on, still exhibiting some subtle variations while also keeping a firm emphasis on economy (3.43) and well warranting his three dismissals.

It was the second time in a now 26-Test career in which he has offered 50 personal overs or more in one innings, the first having been in Hamilton in March 2017 when he kept an exemplary lid on the New Zealand first-knock scoring rate with 2/118 … in a total also of around the 500-mark.

Perseverance is an asset: how many SA colleagues will show it before this Test is completed?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    india  |  proteas  |  cricket


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Saturday, 19 October 2019
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