JOHANNESBURG: South Africa have themselves, not the pitch, to blame for losing the final Test against India. They have themselves, not the pitch, to blame for bowling too short and too wide on the third day and underestimating India’s batting resolve. They have themselves, not the pitch, to blame for losing the chance to take the No.1 ranking and though they will be pleased with a series win, they have themselves, not the pitch, to blame for giving India something in a tour where they wanted to leave them with nothing.
Make no mistake: this loss is going to hurt. Maybe not as much as Dean Elgar’s head, Hashim Amla’s ribs or Vernon Philander’s fingers, but it will still sting. Those three men, along with Kagiso Rabada, kept South Africa in the game on a pitch that has been called everything from “dangerous” by Kepler Wessels to “sh**” by Michael Holding – a pitch South Africa asked for.
Sure, Faf du Plessis didn’t specifically say, “please give us exaggerated bounce and seam movement for days,” but he is the first South African captain to brazenly confess to ordering pitches, to the point of wanting someone to oversee national groundsman so they can work on a common strategy. He is not the first to have home conditions backfire on him against India. Both previous times India have won in South Africa – Johannesburg 2006 and Durban 2010 – South Africa have prepared bowler-friendly surfaces to favour their own attacks. Both times, India’s bowlers outplayed them.
Exactly the same thing happened here, as the India attack schooled South Africa’s on how to bowl in their own conditions. South Africa was particularly poor in the second session on the third day, when India scored 99 runs, and that ultimately proved the difference between the two sides.
During that session, South Africa’s attack appeared to be relying on the pitch a little too much, and on their own skill too little. They bowled back of a length, rather than full, when the India bowlers had already shown the advantages of pitching it up, and they failed to attack the stumps, allowing India to leave enough times to take the pressure off. To their credit, South Africa have recognised that was where the problem lay. “We were a little bit short and wide, which gave them the opportunity to leave a lot more. The Indian bowlers made us play a lot more,” du Plessis said.
South Africa was not helped by a self-confessed “sloppy” effort in the field. In the space of six balls, Elgar put down Bhuvneshwar Kumar at gully and Andile Phehlukwayo dropped Ajinkya Rahane at deep point. Bhuvneshwar was on 15 and went on to score 33; Rahane was on 38 and added 10 runs to his total. It doesn’t sound like a lot of runs but in a low-scoring game, it shifted momentum further India’s way.
Also, during that session talk of the suitability of this pitch was at its highest. By then, the host broadcaster’s commentary team had taken the collective view that the surface was questionable and there was a buzz around media circles that the match should be called off. South Africa may not have known the extent of the concerns at that stage, but they were in the middle, witness to what the pitch was doing. Even if they didn’t think the match was at risk of being called off, at the very least they would have been thinking about batting last on it. It would have been a distraction of some sort and by the end of the day, when India had set South Africa a target that would require them to score the highest total of the match to win, it was clear that the pitch was more of a sore spot for South Africa than for India.
While Virat Kohli has said more times than he has been asked that India has not complained about the pitches they are being presented with, du Plessis has had to admit that preparing bowler-friendly pitches has been as much of a disadvantage as a tactic to exploit home conditions.
“We know that if you ask for a wicket that has got a lot of assistance on, you are bringing the Indian seam attack into it,” du Plessis said. “They are very skilful, they bowl a lot fuller, they are used to bowling on Indian wicket where you have to pitch the ball up to attack the stumps, and they move the ball around both ways. We were outplayed.”
The only thing for South Africa to ask is why they were outplayed. They have already mulled over team selection and whether an extra batsman would have served them better than an allrounder, but they will also have to ask themselves whether there was low-level of complacency that crept in with the series already won.
South Africa invested their emotions in beating India at home after they were beaten in India in 2015, and their robust celebrations after the Centurion win were interrupted by a great release. Ultimately, it was difficult to tighten up again. “I was trying to make sure we keep that same intensity. But I think our actions speak louder than the words we spoke this week,” du Plessis said.
And louder than the pitch, too.