Another sharp rude awakening for South Africa

Another sharp rude awakening for South Africa
Another sharp rude awakening for South Africa

Another day, another rude awakening for early rising South Africans. Bowled out for 152 on Saturday, Dean Elgar’s team were dismissed for 99 on Sunday. They batted for a total of 86 overs in a match that was shorter, in terms of deliveries bowled, than all but seven of the 1,699 Tests that have been won and lost.

Only once has a Test in Australia been decided in fewer balls than the 866 needed to settle the issue at the Gabba. That was at the MCG in February 1932, when it took only 656. The visitors then were also South Africa, who were dismissed for 36 and 45. Australia won by an innings and 72 runs. But, because there was no play on the second day and what would have been the third was a Sunday – and so, in that far different world, a rest day – the match stretched into a fourth. On Sunday the game was put out of its misery when Australia won by six wickets just more than an hour after tea on the second day. Or, on a weekend morning in South Africa, before many had brushed their teeth.

Asked during a television interview if he could understand why that had happened, Nathan Lyon said: “I can, because you’ve got the two best bowling attacks going at each other.” He might have added that those attacks were bowling on a pitch that started out as merely challenging and morphed into a monster. Indentations that formed when the surface was too soft on the first day had hardened into craters from which the ball exploded unpredictably.

Dean Elgar and diplomacy aren’t often on the same page, but in his television interview he managed to limit himself to labelling the pitch “pretty spicy” and musing that he didn’t consider the match “a fair contest”. His excoriation came at the press conference that followed.

Kagiso Rabada, who took 4/13 in four overs in Australia’s awkward albeit nominal run chase to finish with 8/89 in the match, managed to find, somewhere in his fast bowler’s soul, a touch of empathy for the eternal enemy: “It looked quite bad out there for the batters. The ball was absolutely doing heaps.”

But, maybe because South Africa’s batting problems weren’t his to solve, Rabada was able to see the bigger issue: “The batting line-up we have is quite inexperienced. In fact, the team we have is relatively experienced if you look at other cricketing nations around the world. Dean Elgar’s our most experienced player followed by, I think, myself and Temba. I’ve played 50-odd Test matches and others haven’t played much.” Elgar has played 80 Tests, Rabada 56 and Bavuma 52. Keshav Maharaj, who has 46 caps, is the only other member of the side who has reached 20 Tests.

“It can get frustrating,” Rabada said. “I don’t mean to single out the batters; I mean that it’s frustrating as a team. You have to understand that sometimes this is what happens in a rebuilding phase. I’ve played in a team with a star-studded line-up, where you’re playing with greats of the game. I don’t think that happens frequently. There’re a whole lot of players who’ve come in who have the ability but need to get used to the international circuit. There needs to be an element of patience and understanding, but at the same time you can’t advocate for bad performances.”

The team in which Rabada made his Test debut, in Mohali in November 2015, took 357 caps into that match. Their ranks included Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn, who had a combined 293 at that stage. The XI at the Gabba arrived with 304 caps.

That doesn’t seem like a chasmic difference, but South Africa’s top six in Brisbane had 167 caps. In Mohali they had 227. Amla and De Villiers had 182 between them – 15 more than the Gabba top six. The Australians had 561 caps before the Brisbane Test, or 257 more than South Africa. The home side’s top six’s caps equalled the South Africans’ total for their entire XI.

Three of the four teams involved in the Tests that coincided with the Gabba game went in with more experience than South Africa. Bangladesh had 310 caps in their match in Chattogram against India, who had 452. Pakistan’s 233 appearances was the exception. They are in Karachi playing England, who arrived with 373 caps.

Not that experience made much difference for South Africa in Mohali seven years ago, when India dismissed them for 184 and 109 and won by 108 runs after tea on the third day. Then as now the pitch, which raged with turn, was a major factor. All the South Africans could do in the second match in Bengaluru, where the surface glinted almost as greenly as in Brisbane, was look on as four days of the match were lost to rain. Perhaps that wasn’t the worst outcome: Philander, their most potent threat on that kind of surface, was ruled out with an ankle injury two days before the start. The most atrocious conditions of the lot manifested in the third match in Nagpur, where the surface was duly rated poor. South Africa lost that series 3-0, and by increasing margins.

They also lost the aura of being Test cricket’s ultimate road warriors, having suffered their first defeat in the 14 away rubbers they had played in nine years. Stung by what they saw as India’s unfair manipulation of the conditions, their response was to ratchet up the South Africanness of their home pitches. That approach reached its zenith – or was it its nadir? – at the Wanderers in January 2018, where play against India was suspended and veered uncomfortably close to being called off because of a pitch that Michael Holding called “shit”. India won by 63 runs inside four days – a milestone on Virat Kohli’s team’s journey towards the belief that, unlike previous India sides, they could succeed anywhere.

That series marked a turning point for conditions in South Africa. Before it was played, the overall Test batting averages at Newlands, Centurion and the Wanderers – the venues for the matches – was 31.08, 31.63 and 30.17. Since then at those grounds the averages have been 25.96, 26.85 and 26.40. There have, of course, been fewer Tests after the 2018 India series than before, and so the comparison can’t prove a decline in batting conditions in South Africa. But it does offer evidence for that argument, and suggest that the upshot is the kind of failure to come to terms with a lively pitch that we saw in Brisbane.

“Ruined” was how Wisden described the pitch for South Africa’s match in Melbourne in 1932. It wasn’t the only reason they were bowled out for next to nothing in both innings: the game was the fifth and last in a series in which Australia had won the first four. And it could have been worse. Donald Bradman, who had scored two double centuries – one of them an undefeated 299 – and two mere centuries in his other five innings in the rubber for a series average of 201.50, twisted his ankle on his way out of the dressing room to field in South Africa’s first innings and was ruled out.

Leg spinner Clarrie Grimmett, who had taken 33 wickets in the series, 14 of them in the previous game in Adelaide, didn’t bowl a ball in the game at the MCG – where Bert Ironmonger, a left-arm finger spinner despite having lost the forefinger on his bowling hand, took 5/6 and 6/18. But the South Africans were not free of Grimmett just yet. He would return to haunt them at home from December 1935 to February 1936 in what would be his last four Tests. He ended his stellar career with a hattrick of 10-wicket hauls in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. Magically, the 44 wickets he took in the series matched the age he turned on Christmas Day that year.

More recently, and more happily for South Africa, they responded to being beaten by an innings and 276 runs in just more than two days in crazy conditions at Christchurch in February to complete victory by 198 runs at the same ground 10 days later.

Less recently, and less encouragingly for the South Africans, the most recent Test at the MCG, where the series resumes next Monday, was over before lunch on the third day. Last December, Australia beat England by an innings despite scoring only 267. They dismissed England for 185 and 68 on a pitch of zip and zap and on which only Joe Root and Marcus Harris passed 50. Neither made it to 100.

Do more rude awakenings await South Africa’s supporters? It’s difficult not to think so, just as it was after the first Test in Christchurch in February.

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