A few weeks ago, before the start of the Proteas’ current tour of India, I painted a bleak picture of their chances in all three series on the tour. The prediction was that after the T20I and ODI legs they were likely to feel “bombed” and that the final leg, a Test series of four matches, will be an Everest to climb.
Today I’m happy to (partially) eat my words and report that the Proteas are halfway up Everest and still going strong!
Against all predictions, the Proteas won the T20I and ODI series. Collectively they won five out of seven completed matches (one T20I was rained out). A simply phenomenal achievement. The first half of the tour has been an unequivocal success for the Proteas.
There have been two decisive differences between the teams: One AB de Villiers and a weak Indian bowling attack.
To say that De Villiers is beginning to enter the realm of Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards is not an exaggeration. After his amazing 61-ball 119 in the final ODI in Mumbai on Sunday, De Villiers became the first batsman in the history of ODI cricket to have an average of over 50 at a strike rate of more than 100: 54.21 at 100.28. This year alone, De Villiers has amassed 1,193 ODI runs (including five centuries) at an average of 79.51 and strike rate of 138.91.
De Villiers is at the peak of his powers. He makes taking risks look normal. While he is in the form of his life, the Proteas will always have a chance – wherever, whenever.
The Indian bowling attack, both as a unit and individually, is their Achilles heel. Their two best fast bowlers, Ishant Sharma (rested) and Mohammed Shami (injured), did not feature in the white-ball series and their replacements were poor.
It would appear as if the Indian bowling unit only comes into its own on turning surfaces. During the ODI series, only the pitch for the fourth ODI in Chennai turned appreciably. India won that match. This is surprising because one would assume (especially in India) that the pitch curators at the different venues would be in tune with the Indian team’s strategies.
In the wake of the two white-ball series losses, I predict that for the four-match Test series the Indians will go back to what works for them: Rank turners. They have seen now that on good surfaces they are no match for the South Africans. Preparing surfaces where the ball turns from day one, appears to be their only chance.
However, it is a strategy that could also backfire spectacularly. The team up against it on a turning wicket is the one that bats second. In terms of the law of averages, South Africa should win at least two tosses, giving them first use of the best batting conditions and potentially the opportunity to bat India out of the game.
The Indians are more adept in spin friendly conditions, but I don’t believe they are vastly better than the South Africans. Their spin bowling attack is definitely better than the Proteas’, but I don’t believe there is a big difference on the batting front. The backbone of the South Africans’ batting line-up, De Villiers, Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis, is not the worst in the world against spin.
Finally, there is the famous fighting spirit of the Proteas. They are defending a proud away, Test record and will be no push-overs. In July last year, the Proteas resisted Sri Lanka’s spin bowlers for 111 overs on a very spin-friendly wicket in Colombo to record their first Test series victory in that country for over 20 years.
One thing you can be sure of is that the Indians will be pulling out all the stops to atone for their white-ball disasters. The Proteas will have to be prepared like never before. It is going to be a battle royal.