South Africa lost 16 wickets on day three of the Ranchi Test. The Indian bowling was at its ruthless best but the batting conditions weren’t poor and one would have expected the Proteas to show a little more desperation in the middle; the desperation to not just win but perhaps even to survive.

But instead, we saw a procession with India’s fast bowlers, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav, accounting for seven wickets between them on day (10 so far in the match). The South African batsmen were playing down the wrong line and getting out to the short ball. For anyone who had grown up watching generation after generation of South African teams playing quality cricket after their reintroduction to the international scene, it would have been difficult to watch.

“Sixteen wickets in a day. 16 wickets. It will go down as one of the worst days of cricket for South Africa,” said South Africa’s most successful skipper Graeme Smith during the broadcast. “The batting conditions weren’t bad. They were virtually bowled out twice in a day. I am struggling to find the right words. It was humiliating.”

One did not have to look far to see how far this South African team had fallen. Sitting in the commentary box, Smith and Shaun Pollock, two of their finest cricketers, constantly made observations... simple ones, that should have seemed pretty obvious to most international teams but seemed rather lost on this South African unit.

There has been a lot of talk of how South Africa is in a transitional phase but even then, one would have expected their top order to produce much more. Their performance in the first innings at Vizag was unexpected but they have since reverted to form. Through the series, their top order has averaged just 18.7.

And this was in good batting conditions. Imagine this South African team on rank turners?

Courtesy: Star Sports

In the past, a South African top six guaranteed top quality. In India, Graeme Smith averaged 35.91 (7 Tests), Gary Kirsten 52.33 (5 Tests), Jacques Kallis 58.46 (9 Tests), AB de Villiers 45.00 (9 Tests), Hashim Amla 62.73 (10 Tests) and Mark Boucher 31.42 (6 Tests). All these players played over a 100 Tests and they learned how to fight hard in Indian conditions too.

But there clearly is a huge vacuum in the team now. It is hard to pick even one player in the current batting line-up that would have made the South African teams of the past. Not even Faf du Plessis or Dean Elgar, given how they have surrendered without too much of a fight over the course of this series. The current levels of commitment are poor and there really is no other way of putting it.

Running out of ideas

Du Plessis has often looked like a man who doesn’t want the job. His body language has sent the wrong signals. Not everyone has to be hyper on the field like Virat Kohli but this young team needed leadership that du Plessis is seemingly unable to provide.

In the commentary box, Pollock, after watching the pacers bowl ball after ball without any sense or purpose, spoke about the need to bowl cutters, bowl cross-seam deliveries and even the odd short-pitch delivery... just to change things around. He did his bit trying to pass on his knowledge to the South African bowlers but a one-off chat isn’t going to change a habit.

South Africa never had the best spinners but their fast bowlers were capable of consistency and reverse swing. They were capable of keeping the runs down. They were a team that would squeeze out wickets when nothing was going their way. They would cut down the runs, field brilliantly and force an error from the opposition.

Over the years, that was their template. That was South African cricket. They were a team that would give nothing away. And it worked for them. Between the 2007-’08 tour of Pakistan and the 2015 tour of Bangladesh, they did not lose a single series in Asia.

South Africa's superb away run

Series/Tournament Season Winner Margin
South Africa in Pakistan Test Series 2007/08 South Africa 1-0 (2)
South Africa in Bangladesh Test Series 2007/08 South Africa 2-0 (2)
South Africa in India Test Series 2007/08 drawn 1-1 (3)
South Africa in India Test Series 2009/10 drawn 1-1 (2)
Pakistan v South Africa Test Series (in United Arab Emirates) 2010/11 drawn 0-0 (2)
Pakistan v South Africa Test Series (in United Arab Emirates) 2013/14 drawn 1-1 (2)
South Africa in Sri Lanka Test Series 2014 South Africa 1-0 (2)
South Africa in Bangladesh Test Series 2015 drawn 0-0 (2)
Freedom Trophy (South Africa in India) 2015/16 India 3-0 (4)
South Africa in Sri Lanka Test Series 2018 Sri Lanka 2-0 (2)
Sri Lanka in South Africa Test Series 2018/19 Sri Lanka 2-0 (2)
Freedom Trophy (South Africa in India) 2019/20 * India lead 2-0 *

But after the 2015 Bangladesh tour, the floodgates have opened – they haven’t won a single Test in Asia after that. This isn’t just a transition problem. This is something much deeper and it should worry Cricket South Africa.

Their age group teams are not doing well, the domestic cricket restructuring has run into trouble, CSA has little money left in its coffers, the veterans are retiring and younger players are taking Kolpak deals to move to England, the coaching talent has moved away too and unless South Africa addresses these issues quickly, they might find themselves in too deep to stage a recovery.

If they needed a push to quickly make up their minds, the imminent thrashing in this Test series might just be it. But then again, who knows?