SA expect 'spinning deck' despite pitch change
Nagpur and pitches. It has always been a tetchy relationship and it grew a little more strained when, two days before it was set to host a World T20 match between South Africa and West Indies, the pitch for the game was switched.
According to media reports, the move from the pitch that hosted the low-scoring, spinner-dominated India-New Zealand match on March 15 to an adjacent one came at the behest of Andy Atkinson, the ICC's pitch consultant.
It remains to be seen how the new strip will play. Faf du Plessis, South Africa's captain, surmised that the move was made to ensure a less dry playing surface, but he still expected spin to play a significant role.
"When we got here, on the first day of practice the wicket was very dry, and we just prepared ourselves accordingly to play on it," du Plessis said. "Obviously it's changed a bit now, we're not playing on the same wicket.
"We knew that the ground will be a lot different here than it was at Mumbai [where South Africa played their first two matches]. So whether it was changed or not, it wouldn't have made too much difference to us. I assume that the reason they're changing it is to not be as dry, or not to spin as much as it possibly could have on that dry surface. But it's still two teams competing and possibly going to be a spinning deck, so I don't think too much will change."
Du Plessis said he was surprised by the variety of pitches on offer at the World T20, ranging from the square turner for the India-New Zealand game in Nagpur to a batting belter at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, where South Africa racked up 200-plus scores against England and Afghanistan.
"To be honest, I didn't expect it to be like this," he said. "Obviously playing a lot of IPL cricket for years now, I've found that wickets in IPL have generally been quite good and consistent. Barring one or two games through the IPL, you generally get similar runs on the board right through all the venues.
"This World Cup, it's been a little different. There's been almost both extremes, where we've had massive spinning wickets and real flat decks. So that will obviously produce some different quality of cricket, but it's not something I expected and certainly it's not something I'm used to from these conditions.
"But as I said, as a team, it's important that whatever the conditions, you have to be able to adapt. If you lose a game, you're not going to get the game back by complaining about the wicket. You have to try and make do with what you get."
Given the constantly changing conditions, du Plessis stressed the need for teams to adapt quickly.
"I think for me what's been important, and I've spoken a lot about it to the guys, is the fact that we do rely as a team on being smart and to make the correct decisions on whatever the surface is on the day. I think if you consistently prepare for those sort of scenarios, where you need to adapt every day and you don't just rely on one gameplan and one specific batsman to come off, that's all you can do.
"As a team we do that very well, especially as a batting unit we adapt quickly and we're smart in our decision making. We've got guys that can play quite a few different roles and that's going to be the key here. If it's going to be a slow Bunsen burner, then we have to make the transition quicker than the West Indian team. Obviously they are a power-hitting team, so they realise their strength and also their weakness. But for us it's about being the smartest ones on the day."
JP Duminy has been ruled out of the West Indies match with a hamstring strain, and while he would have been a big miss anywhere, South Africa will feel his absence even more, as a batsman and an offspinner on a pitch that is expected to turn.
"I think people will see how important JP is to our team now that he's missing," du Plessis said. "He's an allrounder who, especially in these conditions, plays a role with both bat and ball - not even talking about his experience. There's a lot of talk that has gone into it, especially on who can be doing that sixth bowler's job as you would need at some time. As a captain, it's nice to have a guy you can rely on to bowl some overs. So that has created one or two headaches but we'll hopefully get the right combination."
With Duminy out, South Africa might be forced to include a second specialist spinner, in Aaron Phangiso, to support the legspinner Imran Tahir. It will leave du Plessis - who has already had to deal with dropping his pace spearhead Dale Steyn - with a quandary over which pace bowler to leave out.
"Yes, it's an extremely big headache to have, but it's one that's very nice to have - the fact that we've got real good options. Our bowlers stepped up, Kagiso [Rabada] has been amazing, Kyle Abbott has been almost a silent assassin. He does his job without anyone knowing, and then you've got the experience of Dale Steyn. It is a big headache, but it's a nice one to have. We've had a few of these headaches with the selection of this game, but as I said before, the main thing for me is that we as a team have for the first time depth in our squad and we're allowing all that depth now to come through."
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo