South Africa grapple with experience, consistency void


14th October, 2019 03:40:13 printer

South Africa grapple with experience, consistency void

Faf du Plessis can be forgiven for longingly looking at the resources at Virat Kohli's disposal in Test cricket. The Indian captain is 50 games old into his leadership job and has 30 wins to show for.

His current side, packed with experience, has bagged for India a home series record - of 11 successive series wins - beating peak Australian sides of the 1990s and 2000s to it. The 2013 home series against Australia became the starting point for this absolute juggernaut that is going to take some stopping even from here.

In 2019, India have four wins in four, while South Africa sit at the other end of the success spectrum with zilch to show for. Before losing to India in Vizag and Pune, they conceded two home Tests to Sri Lanka and then lost Dale Steyn and Hashim Amla to retirement and Duanne Olivier to Kolpak. Du Plessis's team has run around in an inferiority circle in India, trying but failing to break away from it. Virat Kohli & Co. came away looking head and shoulders above the South African batsmen, also because India's bowlers did a far superior job than their counterparts.

Du Plessis pointed fingers at the gulf between the two sides with respect to consistency and experience. India weren't just a step ahead of South Africa at most times, but also knew how to regain lost ground as soon as the visitors would show any sign of composure. These two Tests weren't the kind where the visitors were made to bite the dust in hostile conditions. Far from it.

South Africa arrived at the back of an exodus of experience and a home series embarrassment at the hands of Sri Lanka. The expectation was for India to run them over for easy World Test Championship points, but Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock showed that defiance can make mincemeat of any prediction. But sustenance of this defiance is where the visitors fell way short. In the face of a tricky Day 5 pitch with the ball keeping low, South African batsmen just couldn't fight it out one more time. In Pune, the inconsistency carried on while India raised their game a notch.

"You can take player by player in the two teams and the ability to land the ball in the right areas for a long period of time... they [Indian bowlers] do that as a bowling attack together. I find that in the first and the second Test there were periods when we did it, with Vernon [Philander] and KG [Rabada] and a little bit of Keshav [Maharaj] sometimes where there is pressure building and we managed to keep the run rate at a good tempo at 2.8 or 2.9. But then the pressure just gets released and their batting is on top and it is difficult to stop. The way the Indian batters have taken the game to our bowlers in both the Test matches [is incredible]," Du Plessis said in a post-match press conference.

Du Plessis is right. Inconsistency plagues this South African side, and even with bowlers like Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Keshav Maharaj - whose reputation has seen quite a spike in recent times, they've struggled to win entire sessions by putting Indian batsmen under pressure.

Though it'd be unfair to compare the two sides in their current forms, it's telling of the sheer gulf in abilities that India are employing a strict but unspoken perform-or-perish policy even for their inexperienced players (like Rishabh Pant for example) while South Africa have no choice but to go down this route: "For us it is important as a senior player group to make sure that we put in performances ourselves. Myself, Deano, QdK... we can't expect other guys. We need to make sure we make the runs first and then the others guys to chip in with us. In a time like this, it is important that your big guys really, really take control and make sure that they put in the bulk of the work."

"When it comes to this Indian team, there's a lot of experience in that dressing room, there's a lot of Test matches behind their names. We're at this stage where we've lost almost all of our experience. Steyn, Morkel, Amla, de Villiers all of them are seasoned campaigners. And now its a new group of guys who've played 5, 6, 10, 11, 12, 15 Test matches. That will take time. You don't replace those guys overnight. If you take the best players out of any team, they would find the same challenges.

"If you look at their team in terms of Test caps, and experience, and the numbers they have on the board in terms of averages, it all stacks up. That's where we've got to get at as a team. If you look at, from our batting point of view, purely on the numbers side of things it's not good enough. So we need to get there. We need the right guys to make sure there's a plan for the next two years. Obviously the Test championship is not now, it's a two year thing, so we've to make sure we get there, and all batting averages are 40 plus. And if you do that, then consistently you will challenge bowling attacks."

The thing about consistency and experience is that it's interwoven - you need the former to gain the latter, while the existence of the latter breeds the former. So where and how do South Africa begin then?

Even as Du Plessis has maintained a straight face while talking about improving his performance at the toss, the starting point - particularly in this series - should be their batting.

Aiden Markram made his way to Vizag with two centuries in India - for the A side and in the warm-up game. Hitting the straps right before the series was timing at its best as far as South Africa could imagine, as they needed a top-order batsman to carry the weight of run-making in the absence of Hashim Amla. Two weeks on, Markram heads for the last Test of the series with scores of 5 and 39 in the first Test and a pair in the second.

Theunis de Bruyn is next in the top-order who has high hopes pinned on him. His decision to shun a life pursuing Chartered Accountancy and play cricket for the country instead saw a moment of vindication last year, when he scored a backs-to-the-wall century in Sri Lanka, albeit in a defeat.

His role in India was meant to ease the pressure on the out-of-sorts No.4 Temba Bavuma and ensure Du Plessis didn't have to swoop in and hold the South African innings together. De Bruyn heads to Ranchi with scores of 4, 10, 30 and 8, and is under the risk of remaining on the bench there. Temba Bavuma admitting that his best efforts in this series is not good enough says a lot about what he's going through and taking his team through while occupying a crucial position at two-drop.

Like du Plessis admitted, South Africa are indeed at a juncture where the seniors need to hand-hold the inexperienced as they aim to move forward together. But even for that to happen, the captain needs his players to at least meet him midway as far as the performances are concerned.