South Africa in India 2015-16 December 8, 2015

Tricky road ahead as SA seek to rebuild

A long and bruising tour of India shone a harsh light on the frailties of an inexperienced South African side that is dealing with a difficult transition

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'SA blockathon down to mental strength'

The blockathon of the last two days aside, South Africans will want this series forgotten by the amnesiacs, not stored in the almanacks. They were shaken, stirred and stunned and cannot skulk away from the manner in which they were shown up.

The reality is that South Africa are much better than this. Even with a batting line-up in transition - four out of the top seven had never played a Test in India before and two of them, Stiaan van Zyl and Dane Vilas, had just six caps between them before this series - and against a rabid opposition making use of home advantage, they could and should have posted more runs. Their techniques against spin are not as deficient as they appeared, instead the mental fragility usually associated with their limited-overs outfits gnawed into their long-form game as well.

From the outset, South Africa talked themselves out of the contest, using words like "the worst," when discussing their expectations and it showed in their performance. They played for what they imagined, not what was real and were dismissed by deliveries that did not turn, as well as ones that did.

Part of their morale was also messed with by medical concerns in the bowling department. The three pillars which usually hold South Africa up never stood together because of injuries. Morne Morkel missed the first Test, Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn the next three and the nagging nature of Steyn's niggle would have caused the most nuisance .It dripped like an open tap in the build-up to every game, which was dominated by talk of whether Steyn would win his race against time. For the batsmen that meant the security of having the attack they believe can make up for their blunders was taken away.

Then there is the issue of time. This tour lasted 72 days, which is a long time no matter which you look at it. It's more than 10 weeks, it's nearly three months. Moreover, it is the longest time a South African team have been away from home since readmission. Being involved in high-level competition at intensity for that amount of time takes its toll, especially when you are losing.

These reasons are not excuses for South Africa's underperformance, they are explanations, and they do not address a major underlying issue which impacted on this series: balance. South Africa could not construct a suitable enough XI to tick all the boxes they need to when putting a team on the field.

Team selection is a significant contributor to success and in South Africa's case it has been cited as the reason for their rise. They called for consistency in selection, which has generally meant sticking to a formula of seven batsmen, three quicks, and a spinner.

On this tour that has had to change to meet conditions because South Africa have had to accommodate two spinners, which has meant either being a batsmen or a seamer short in three of the four games. But we cannot discuss this honestly without talking about the transformation targets South Africa also have to meet.

Imagine picking an XI that has to have at least six specialist batsmen, preferably seven, of which one is a wicket-keeper and one can bowl a bit, three seamers from a group where some are injured and the reserves rarely have enough game time, one specialist spinner from a trio and ensuring that there are at least four players of colour of which one is black African.

Whether you agree with or disagree with those parameters, that is what they are. It makes picking a side difficult because although there are enough players of colour coming through - the franchises have their own transformation requirements of five players of colour with two black Africans, which they are meeting - finding the right players in the right positions is not as simple as colouring by numbers.

Currently, the options available in terms of black African players in the Test are Kagiso Rabada, who played all but one match on the India tour, and Temba Bavuma, who played when Rabada did not. Both had strong showings and demonstrated the success of the transformation plan - it's not about picking players who are not good enough to fill a quota but it about how you decide between players who are good enough. In some countries that decision is made on something as subjective as which player the chief selector or the captain feels has more potential. In South Africa part of that decision is made with transformation guidelines in mind.

The effect is not the fear and loathing that is imagined, in which white players are afraid they will lose their chance of playing international sport and black players resentful of handouts. It is more nuanced. It is about the how the balance of a side can be affected by adding another aspect to the way a team is chosen.

At this point it means that when both Philander and Steyn are fit again to play alongside Morkel, Rabada may be left out unless South Africa play four quicks, and there will be no space for Kyle Abbott at all. That will also mean Bavuma will start, but since there is no space for him in his regular spot in the middle order, he will have to open. Luckily for South Africa, Bavuma showed that he could.

He seemed more assured than the man he replaced, van Zyl, but it is not known how he will fare at home on what are bound to be spicy pitches against the England attack. Given that neither van Zyl nor Bavuma is actually an opener, South Africa may want to pick someone more accustomed to the role.

If they do that, their choices are limited to Stephen Cook or Andrew Puttick, and so far, the selectors have said age is the main obstacle to their selection. Cook is 33 and Puttick 34 so the suits have a point, but Cook topped the first-class batting charts last season, Puttick was the fifth-highest run-getter the season before, both average over 40, and between them have played 310 first-class games. That kind of experience should not be scoffed at.

Both Cook and Puttick are white so including one of them would mean re-looking at balance either by making a space for Bavuma lower down, possibly putting JP Duminy's spot at risk, or including Rabada by breaking up the Steyn-Morkel-Philander triumvirate. Whichever way you look at it, it leaves South Africa in a tricky situation and the players know it.

Even though most of them - barring the captain and a few in the senior core who may be part of selection discussions - do not actually have to deal with this, they are the subjects of it. That is not always a comfortable reality to be part of and the discomfort of it is showing.

South African sport is in a state of change that not everybody will like or understand. Some may wish this time is confined to the amnesiacs, others will say it was a long time coming but we will only honestly be able to assess this period in the almanacks.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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