India vs South Africa 2019, 1st Test: Absence of specialist spinners could hurt South Africa as Proteas face familiar demons
We are only two days into the first Test of the Freedom Trophy and the Indian batsmen have done their bit to attract all the attention to themselves. The team management had already taken away the excitement of guessing the playing XI by announcing it a day before. While the Indians were spoilt for choice in all the departments of the game, South Africa were focussed on their pace strength and how to trouble the Indian heavyweights with raw pace. But if history was to be considered, flat tracks and rank-turners would take away all the fire from the medium pacers.
With Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada taking only one wicket in their combined total of 45 overs and giving away 125 runs and the day nearing to a close, South Africa were staring at their worst nightmares.
Dale Steyn leads the way with 26 wickets in six matches in India at an average of 21.38. Left-arm chinaman Paul Adams and Imran Tahir come in fifth and sixth on the highest wicket-takers list in India. Paul played 45 Tests in his career, picking up 134 wickets in total. In India, he took 14 wickets in only three matches at an impressive average of 20.28 while Tahir averages 21.35 in India. Shockingly, Nicky Boje, South Africa’s specialist spin bowler played only two matches in India where he took seven wickets. Paul Harris, another slow left-arm orthodox bowler, took 13 wickets in his five Test matches in India but with an average of above 50.
Although, some of these spinners made the list by taking wickets, their influence with the ball was quite minimal. If we were to look beyond the numbers, the longevity of spin bowlers of South Africa is a matter of grave concern. The main spin threat will be Keshav Maharaj, who would be playing his first Test match in India. In case of Test matches, a bowler eventually learns the tricks of the trade by bowling more and more to tough oppositions in indifferent conditions.
We know that South Africa are predominantly a pace dependent unit but to get results in the Indian sub-continent, captains need to have a specialist spinner in their arsenal, someone who can bowl long spells, break ominous-looking partnerships or take that prized scalp. If spinners become the wicket-takers, the faster bowlers can lend support by coming in for short spells that bursts with pace. This partnership helps create a balance that fits into the longest format perfectly. And that’s where former South African captains have long wanted. It’s a known fact of how good the Indians are against spinners, how they use their feet and can rotate strike at will. But this dependency always has a chance to backfire in crunch situations.
Australian Nathon Lyon stands second in the list of the highest number of wickets by a spinner against India, while the list is topped by Muttiah Muralitharan - 105 in 22 matches. In India, Lyon has played 7 matches (more than any South African spinner ever) and taken 34 wickets (15 in 2012-13 and 19 in 2016-17). The fact that Lyon has toured India twice will only make him better when he returns for a tour next time around.
The numbers are not an ally of this South African team and if the two days in the field are to be taken into consideration, there could possibly get worse for the visitors.