Cape Town – It says so much about the befuddled, brittle state of the South African Test cricket team that their blushes were spared to a minor degree, in heavy defeat to India on Sunday, by two misfiring spinners … though in their secondary capacities as tail-end batsmen.
Dane Piedt lashing a brisk, defiant maiden half-century in the format and a second consecutive, decent unbeaten knock from debutant Senuran Muthusamy (49 to go with his earlier 33) warrant a certain amount of praise in the comprehensive 203-run defeat in the first of three encounters at Visakhapatnam.
Ultimately, though, all they really did was paper over profound cracks -- come crunch time -- in the more specialist stroke-playing department: a hallmark that has unpleasantly evident in the shock 0-2 home setback to Sri Lanka at the end of last summer and simply spilled over into the business end of this contest.
The bitter truth is that the supposed cream of the Proteas’ batting surrendered limply in the first session on Sunday, something that already gives the Indians a massive mental stranglehold as the hostilities shift to Pune.
Sadly, the dam wall had already given way by the time Piedt and Muthusamy, who had worryingly forgettable games at their main trades, got together for a 91-run alliance for the ninth wicket.
The more relevant issue was South Africa’s slide from an overnight 11 for one to odious 70 for eight in the space of only some 18 traumatic overs.
On a day scheduled to embrace a formidable 98 overs from the outset, it was just a matter of time from that point for the last rites to be read.
While the pitch was turning to an increasing degree and many deliveries from the seamers also shooting through low, it was nothing like the type of dust-bowl “monster” at any point that the Proteas faced with some regularity on the nightmarish, controversial 2015 tour.
Remember, this was a surface which had seen India’s stellar batting line-up amass a total of 825 runs in the match for the loss of just 11 wickets – including an effortlessly brisk onslaught on day four ahead of a second-innings declaration.
While the Proteas’ own first knock of 431 was an encouraging enough showing, you could argue that it was really no more than par in the conditions at the time … and there was a noticeable imbalance between the major innings of Dean Elgar (160) and Quinton de Kock (111), and the more modest rest.
Come the second turn at the crease, and almost all of the SA front-liners flopped to an abject extent.
That department is undoubtedly still the main bugbear of this team – almost certainly now in their shakiest state on paper as a batting unit since the isolation-ending year of 1992 – and the brains trust have no choice (surely?) but to try to bolster it further even it means sacrificing a bowler at Pune.
While it would be tough on Muthusamy after his gritty, twin lower-order offerings in runs, he seems a more obvious sacrifice than Piedt, if only because if you dropped the off-spinner you would be leaving behind (with first-choice Keshav Maharaj) two left-arm orthodox spinners – and the main part-time option, Elgar, also sends down left-arm fare.
Muthusamy being entrusted with a miserly three overs in the Indian second innings only suggested quite glaringly that he was a superfluous element in purely bowling terms – though he may yet be saved if it was felt with any conviction by those in authority that his batting can become a serious string to his bow at this level.
The wiser course of action, arguably, seems to be to recall young Cape Cobras right-handed batsman Zubayr Hamza (one cap and signs of promise against Pakistan last summer), ensuring a seven-strong specialist batting arsenal in the second Test and a better chance of avoiding the sort of collapses that are becoming too habitual.
One or two incumbents in the batting order – Theunis de Bruyn springs quickly to mind, though he can provide occasional medium-pace bowling support if necessary – are under mounting pressure through low returns for the Proteas, although too much axe-wielding at this early stage of the series might only smack of excessive panic.
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