South Africa have batted thrice in the ongoing Test series against India and on each occasion, their top order has come a cropper. In their first innings of the second Test in Pune, they were reduced to 53/5 and then 162/8 before Vernon Philander and Keshav Maharaj got together to lend some respectability to their total.
The inefficiency of South Africa’s frontline batsmen can be put into perspective if one considers Philander and Maharaj’s disciplined effort on Saturday along with an observation Virat Kohli made after India won the first Test.
Kohli had spoken about how he wishes the SG balls used for Test matches in India stayed firm for a longer period of time.
“If the ball softens up after 40-45 overs, you have nothing happening in the game, which is not ideal for Test cricket,” Kohli had said. “The hard ball obviously kicks a bit more, makes it difficult for batsmen. We would like to see that happen on a consistent basis, the ball remaining hard for at least 60 overs, if not 80. So that we are all in the game through and through.”
Kohli’s statement revealed the struggles a bowler faces in India once the ball goes soft, which usually happens around the 45-over mark with the latest batch of SG balls.
Now consider this: in the three times that South Africa have batted in this series, their highest score at the 45-over mark has been 144/4
South Africa’s score after the first 45 overs:
First Test, first innings: 144/4
First Test, second innings: 121/8
Second Test, first innings: 139/7
These numbers say two things – South African batsmen aren’t comfortable on Indian pitches, of course, and more importantly, they aren’t even putting in much thought before going out to the middle. You have an opposition captain openly saying that bowlers find it difficult to make things happen after a certain number of overs, yet you don’t show the resolve to fight out the difficult period initially.
Taking nothing away from Indian bowlers, the likes of Aiden Markram, Theunis de Bruyn and Temba Bavuma have shown a lack of application nearly every time they’ve come out to bat in this series.
Markram has gotten out twice after attempting expansive drives early on in his innings, De Bruyn has thrown away starts with rash strokes away from his body, and Bavuma simply hasn’t looked the part as a No 4 batsman.
There really aren’t any excuses the South African top order batsmen can have for their poor run. India’s batsmen have shown that the pitches are conducive for big totals, South Africa’s lower order batsmen Philander, Maharaj, Senuram Muthusamy and Dane Piedt have shown that India’s bowlers can be dealt with.
And to go one step further, the likes of Philander and Maharaj even demonstrated how to negotiate the second new ball.
On Saturday, the Proteas batsmen put on a gritty 109-run partnership for the ninth wicket after South Africa were reduced to 162/8. They batted for 43 overs, against the old ball and the second new one, and hardly ever looked troubled. Their game plan seemed simple – bat for as long as possible. They defended most deliveries and put away the bad ones. And once their partnership started to blossom, the Indian attack did not look as threatening all of a sudden.
“Vernon and I decided that trying to go to tea unscathed was the first target,” said Maharaj after the end of day’s play. “I was a bit injudicious at times, he kept me in my mind and space and I managed to get some runs. It was tough, but I think we managed it well. We wanted to spend as much time as possible. We don’t know what India will do [enforce follow-on or not] , but we need to keep being positive, don’t go into a shell and try and build some partnerships and transfer some pressure back on the bowlers.”
Maharaj couldn’t have said it better. If the South African top-order batsmen can show the same fight and play sensible cricket, this series could yet have a chance of becoming competitive.