Cape Town - If the best thing about
inelegantly tumbling off a bicycle is brushing yourself off and determinedly
continuing your journey, then South Africa still have something to play for in
the dead-rubber final Test against India at Delhi from next Thursday.
An era ended on Friday when they
predictably succumbed by 124 runs in the third Test, ensuring series defeat –
their first in 16 away ones since 2006.
At least there was a semblance of honour
attached, as they managed - with captain Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis to the
fore – to bat in the fourth innings for a good bit longer (89.5 overs) than any
of the three prior ones had lasted in the Nagpur match, played on a globally
A total of 185 may not look too flash on
paper, and ditto the respective scores of 39 by that pair of previously
out-of-touch batsmen, but under the circumstances it amounted to a gritty
For the moment, the Proteas remain the No
1-ranked side, and still worthily so ... let’s not lose sight of that amidst
the current disappointment.
But there have also been certain worrying
signs over the past few months that their halo is slipping, and a spirited
showing next week – preferably ensuring a 2-1 final tally in India – would help
settle some butterflies among their supporters, soon awaiting the summer visit
of Ashes-holding England.
There will be a reasonable chance that the
Indians, under some scrutiny over pitch preparation, deliver a kinder, truer
surface for the closing Test – as much as anything their own batsmen would
desire it because their averages in this series haven’t looked too much smarter
than those of their rivals.
A lopsided amount of their success has been
in the hands of a merciless spinning trio, led by the tall, imperious
Ravichandran Ashwin (match figures of 12/98 at Nagpur).
The immediate task of SA coach Russell
Domingo and company is to gee up the perhaps by now travel-weary squad after
the deflating loss of a proud record, and then work out a suitable line-up for
a competitive, bounce-back performance in Delhi.
There is still the delicate matter of
whether established main strike bowler Dale Steyn will be fit enough to make
the cut after sitting out the middle two encounters with a persistent groin
injury – and they will need to feel fully convinced on that score, given the
importance of his readiness to tackle England.
But two other predicaments face the brains
trust in the short term: Stiaan van Zyl’s glaring lack of runs at the top of
the order and the struggle on both the batting and glove-work front of
wicketkeeper Dane Vilas.
The left-handed Van Zyl is a “manufactured”
opening batsman and those of cynical disposition might say it has looked too
He has compiled a mere 20 runs from four
knocks in that berth in the series thus far and been Ashwin’s bunny –
interestingly his best vigil by far of 36 off 82 deliveries came when he was
tactically pushed down to No 6 for the second innings at Mohali.
But considering that the Proteas have no
other opening specialists in their squad midst on tour, Van Zyl may well earn a
reprieve on that basis alone for the last fixture.
The only other “spare” batsman of any kind
in the party is four-cap Temba Bavuma, not given any opportunity yet in India
despite his good reputation against spin ... and indirectly, that brings us
back to Vilas.
Perhaps if a gap is to be created for
Bavuma to try to beef up the mix at the crease, it may involve having to
persuade kingpin stroke-player AB de Villiers to temporarily resurrect his
‘keeping career in the five-day format and withdrawing the labouring Cape
One of the Indian television commentators
quite diplomatically described keeping wicket at Nagpur as an “adventure”, and
he might well have said the same of the not dissimilar Mohali crumbler a couple
of weeks earlier.
They have been awful tracks for any ‘keeper
to play his first Indian series on, and Vilas, in fairness, hasn’t been all bad
in that regard.
But his tenuous position is being
compounded by woes at the crease – he averages a stark 7.20 after five knocks
in the series.
It must be difficult for him anyway,
knowing that back home young Quinton de Kock is fast playing himself back into
the kind of form that makes him a dead cert in the eyes of many observers for a
recall to the England Test series.
We know players like Van Zyl and Vilas are
better cricketers than their numbers in India, with its lotto Test pitches, so
But at the same time you are judged largely
on your statistics in this game, and they are currently coming up worryingly
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing