A trial by pace, a test of patience
In the 32 years since the winter of 1983-84, when 'Marshall Law' was declared in Kanpur and Kolkata, India have only suffered three innings defeats at home. They came in Bangalore in March 2000, in Ahmedabad in April 2008, and in Nagpur in February 2010. All three were against South Africa.
Since their first full tour of India in 1996-97, South Africa have easily been the most consistently competitive side to visit these shores. In that period, they have won more Tests in India than any other team. This includes Australia, who have played 20 Tests in India to South Africa's 12. Australia, though, have only won four to South Africa's five.
In that time, South Africa's batsmen and bowlers boast the best averages of any team in India, and in a land defined by mostly slow, turning pitches, their success has come on the back of pace rather than spin.
Collectively, South Africa's quicks average 28.05 in India since that first Test tour in 1996-97. The next best record in that period has belonged to England, whose fast bowlers have averaged 34.70. That is a significant difference. Rahul Dravid, who faced South Africa in four home series, believes the difference could be down to the sheer pace they have had at their disposal.
"I think one of the big things is they took the surface out of the equation," Dravid says. "They've always generally had, whether you think about Allan Donald, or later on someone now like a Dale Steyn, they've always had someone who's quick through the air, they've always had one or two guys who've been able to bowl well in spite of the surfaces.
"So even if the surfaces are slow, the speed through the air makes a big difference. Even though they might not have had the quality of some of the other teams' spinners, they've always had people with the ability to bowl quick through the air. Good exponents of reverse-swing, the likes of Donald and Steyn, and even Lance Klusener in [1996-97] bowled quite quickly through the air."
Perhaps not coincidentally, South Africa's one India tour in the space between Donald's retirement and Steyn's emergence was their least successful. Since that 1-0 defeat in 2004-05, South Africa have visited India twice and left with 1-1 draws on both occasions.
Across those two tours, Steyn bagged 26 wickets at an average of 20.23. Of those 26 wickets, an eye-popping 18 (69.23%) were either bowled or lbw. By doing that, he raised South Africa's overall share of bowled and lbw dismissals in India to 35.55. In the time since South Africa's first Test tour of India, only Pakistan, those proud proponents of full-and-straight, have a greater percentage of bowled and lbw.
|*Since November 20, 1996|
"I think you have to bowl a lot straighter in the subcontinent, there's no doubt about it," Dravid says. "The Australians, when they won in 2004, they did that really, really well. They had really good quality bowlers to be able to sustain that.
"Of course, if you do bowl in line with the stumps, if you err slightly, there's a good chance you'll get picked away, so you need to have the quality of bowlers to be able to execute that. And when you have speed through the air, that also gets you a lot of wickets lbw, it gets you a lot of wickets bowled as well, because you're able to bowl fast and straight and knock over especially the tail quite quickly."
Aside from negating slow surfaces, South Africa's pace attacks have also been a threat on the occasional underprepared pitch they have come across. At the Wankhede Stadium in 2000, South Africa were moved to include two spinners on a pitch that, according to Wisden, "was not just shorn by the mower but also scraped with a wire brush". Still, it was their seamers who picked up every Indian wicket, apart from a run-out in each innings, in a four-wicket win completed inside three days.
They could not quite match the feat in Kanpur eight years later, where India squared the series on a crumbling surface termed a "poor cricket wicket" by South Africa's coach Mickey Arthur. But it took bad-wicket masterpieces from Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman to steer India to a position of relative first-innings strength, before their spinners took over. India's batsmen looked more comfortable against Paul Harris, South Africa's lone specialist spinner, than they did against Steyn, Makhaya Ntini, and Morne Morkel, a tall, gangling, hit-the-deck bowler made for unpredictable pitches.
Morkel had Dravid caught at gully with a brute of a lifter that jammed his glove into the handle of his bat.
"That's the danger of sometimes preparing absolute underprepared wickets against South Africa," Dravid says. "If the ball starts going through the surface, then someone like a Morne Morkel is as dangerous as anyone else you can find. They might not have a spinner, but on a dry, dusty wicket their fast bowlers will more than make up for it."
Dravid made 29 off 106 balls in that painfully terminated innings, an innings that encapsulated his record against South Africa at home. In 18 innings, he was out for single-digit scores only twice, but made only one century and three fifties. His strike rate against South Africa at home - 32.48 - was significantly less than his career strike rate of 42.51.
"I guess they are willing to be very disciplined as a bowling attack also," Dravid says. "Very patient, very disciplined, they don't try too many things, so they can make you bat for long periods of time to get runs on those slow wickets. It has contributed, I guess, to… it's hard to put a finger on exactly why my record isn't that good against them at home, but maybe, if I was willing to be patient with them, they were willing to be as patient with me."
That dimension of their game, Dravid says, has extended to their batting as well.
"I think in terms of batsmen, they tend to be a lot more patient than some of the other teams," he says. "Sometimes people think they are playing defensive cricket, but they do recognise that sometimes you need to be defensive early on in the subcontinent, because things happen very quickly on days four and five, so they definitely strive to stay in touch with you, and then hope that things fall their way on the fourth and fifth day.
"Some teams, you can tie them down and they might play some shots, but sometimes, South Africa have the quality of batsmen just to bat for long innings and be very patient."
The stats reflect South Africa's skill at batting time. Of all visiting batsmen who have faced 500 or more deliveries in India since the start of that 1996-97 tour, four of the top six batsmen on the balls-per-innings table are South African. Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis are predictably part of this table, but so are the architects of South Africa's only two draws in India: Andrew Hall and Neil McKenzie.
|*Min 500 balls faced since November 20, 1996|
Promoted as a makeshift opener in the first Test of the 2004-05 tour, Hall faced 454 balls in compiling 163 and setting up a first-innings total of 510 on an exceedingly slow and flat Kanpur pitch. Three-and-a-half years later, McKenzie made 94 and an unbeaten 155 in a Chennai bat-a-thon.
The significance of Hall and McKenzie's contributions, however, was not just statistical. In both matches, Virender Sehwag followed up their efforts with innings of peculiarly Sehwagian size and tone: 164 off 228 balls in Kanpur, and 319 off 304, the fastest triple-hundred ever, in Chennai.
On numerous occasions through his career, big innings from Sehwag gave India's bowlers both the run-cushion and the time to bowl their oppositions out twice. South Africa, however, had pre-emptively secured themselves from that threat by batting big and batting long.
Given good conditions, South Africa have seldom failed to bat big or long on their tours of India. Their four lowest first-innings totals - 176, 177, 244 and 265 - all came on difficult pitches, and the only time they handed India the advantage on a good batting pitch was in Kolkata in 2010, when Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan combined to trigger a collapse from 218 for 1 to 296 all out. Otherwise, their batsmen have set things up brilliantly, giving South Africa six 400-plus first-innings totals in their 12 Tests in India. Of those six matches, South Africa have won four and drawn two.
It appears, therefore, that there is no real secret to South Africa's successes in India. Everyone knows that pace through the air can negate slow pitches, that you need to attack the stumps when there is not much carry, and that it is vital to stay patient in the early part of Test matches in the subcontinent. South Africa have simply been better than anyone else at making those simple plans work.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo