South Africa in India 2009-10 February 2, 2010

Spin deficiency can hurt South Africa

Deficiency in the spin department can hurt South Africa's prospects in the Test series, and their current spin options haven't shown much promise

Some might bill this contest as the world championship of Test cricket, but if you weigh the overall resources available to both contestants the scales are tipped against South Africa in one important area: the spin department. The lack of a good spinner, forget a match-winner, has always kept South Africa almost famous.

Just like the chokers tag, South Africa have never been able to convincingly erase another dark spot - the absence of a slow bowler who can support the well-equipped fast-bowling bench. It is to their credit then that they have an enviable record in India, which even supersedes the Australians. A combination of a strong, and deep, batting line-up, lethal fast bowlers and the ability to slip into the saddle quickly has always kept the South African challenge honest. The India series gives them another chance to be No.1, but already the signs are ominous.

On the first of the two-day warm-up match, played on a sporting pitch at the Vidarbha Cricket Association stadium, South Africa's spinners were a troubled lot, as 20-year-olds saw them off with ridiculous ease. Paul Harris was whipped into submission by Manish Pandey in the hour leading to the lunch break. And when he returned, an hour later, Abhishek Nayar swept and cut him, forcing Graeme Smith to dispatch his premier spinner into the deep corners of the field for the rest of the afternoon.

Johan Botha flattered to deceive as he began with a quick, straighter delivery that beat the defence of Cheteshwar Pujara. But the offspinner has been rendered largely ineffective after the ICC banned his doosra (in May 2009), a delivery that fetched him large number of wickets during his early years in first-class cricket and raised the aspirations of various South African think-tanks. Today he failed to get any break off the pitch, despite the true bounce, and was unsuccessful in lending flight consistently.

JP Duminy, the third spinner, used sparingly by Smith in the past, was left practising the doosras on the sidelines during the tea break, and never got the breadth to exercise his true potential.

With Jacques Kallis being reduced to a bits-and-pieces bowler on flat Indian pitches prone to favour turn, the visitors are likely find themselves in a desperate situation unless they fix their spin problems. Fortunately for them, according to two experts, South Africa have the ability to stand strong against the might of the Indian batting order, which has demoralised spinners at home, counting among its victims Shane Warne and, most recently, Muttiah Muralitharan. Murali arrived in India for the three-Test series 17 short of becoming the first bowler to take 800 wickets, but returned home a spent force and still nine away from the historic mark.

Daryl Cullinan, one of the few South Africans to work out the menace of Murali in his prime, said Smith needs to admit he lacks the spinners who could catch the Indians in the wake, and opt for a defensive approach. "I don't think many spinners come to India and dominate. So the best contribution (from the spinners) would be in looking to contain," Cullinan told Cricinfo. He added the peculiar nature of Indian pitches would only aggravate the visitors' agony. "They are going to be under pressure but a lot will depend on the wicket. I don't expect the surfaces to be sporting at all. If that is the case then our spinners might have to battle."

But, quite contrary to Cullinan, Pat Symcox, his former team-mate was positive about the spin combination being a potent force. "There is no doubt that Paul Harris, Johan Botha and even JP Duminy have the wherewithal to pull the job," Symcox said. "If Botha can mentally overcome what has happened to him over the last two years, he is a good spinner. Duminy is extremely under-rated. The question that remains is whether they can adjust quickly to the conditions that are going to prevail."

Still, the numbers in the past have not been encouraging. Symcox, once South Africa's premier offspinner, had a forgettable time in India: During the 1996 tour, where India won the Test series 2-1, his six wickets came an average of 54. In the same series, Paul Adams grabbed 14 wickets at 20. But the most successful South African slow bowler in India has been Nicky Boje, who played a winning hand in South Africa's series win in 2000, picking seven wickets in two Tests at 16, including a five-for.

However, Symcox has plenty of faith in the current spin attack. He also does not want to read too much into the performance in the warm-up. "Having experienced it myself I felt we should not read too much into the warm-up because it is about finding the feet, finding the rhythm and getting adjusted to the local conditions," he said. The winning strategy, Symcox said, would be for the South African batsmen to put enough runs on the board which, then, would allow the spinners to attack for an extended period of time. "If not then they will have to adopt the defensive mode."

The stale form of Harris, though, is a growing concern, a factor acknowledged by both Smith and his bowling coach Vincent Barnes. Symcox is more sympathetic towards the tall left-arm spinner, who he reckons is just as much off the boil as India's No. 1 spinner Harbhajan Singh had been in the past. "Form comes and goes and that is one of the mysteries of the game. Like Harbhajan Singh, who also has to answer the same questions," he says. Symcox defended Harris, saying a big factor for his decline had been the chronic lack of support on South African tracks which have little in them for spinners.

But even while playing overseas, Harris confronts a tide of numbers against him. There is a significant difference in his home and away averages: in South Africa, he has played 15 Tests, taking 44 wickets at 31, while on foreign surfaces, he has taken 38 wickets in 12 Tests at 36. Incidentally, his record against India is his worst against any opposition: in four Tests he has managed 13 wickets at 45. And his performance in India has been dispiriting - he's played three Tests, taking eight wickets at 51.

Though Harris was consistent in 2009, with 26 wickets in six Tests at 33, he's experienced a decline since his debut in 2007 when he took 29 wickets in nine Tests at 24. But Cullinan and Symcox remain hopeful. "Both Botha and Harris are not big turners, but on wickets that have irregular turn and bounce they can be effective," Cullinan said.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo; Stats inputs by Siddhartha Talya

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • shmulik on February 5, 2010, 10:23 GMT

    I think that South Africa are not looking enough at the domestic results. They have a problem with Ashwell opening but they persist with him while one Dean Elgar made 892 in the SuperSport series! Now to the point.SA currently don't have a good spinner but they have some very promising spinners in their ranks such as Rabian Engelbrecht.Just wait a few years. AND CHECK THE DOMESTIC SERIES!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Ashok on February 3, 2010, 17:08 GMT

    SA has an excellent pace attack led by Steyn & Morkel and followed by Kallis & Parnell. These bowlers are capable of troubling the best bats in the world. The spin bowlers can provide relief when needed. So Botha & Harris will be there just to keep the runs down and provide breaks for the pace bowlers. If Indian opening batting can counter the new ball and put a century opening partnership, the relief starts with kallis & Parnell and a spin bowler. So there is plenty of bowling to counter the batting. India's biggest strength lies in Sehwag's fluent opening with Gambhir. They must put up a good score. It appears Vijay is likely to bat #3 followed by Tendulkar,Laxman, Badrinath & Dhoni. It is essential this line up clicks facing the pace and bouncers. Only then the spin attacks gets a chance. So onus is on the Indian batting to lead the way and force the spinners on by countering the SA Pacemen successfully.If the pitch is easy paced then India will do well. Let us hope that's the case.

  • vibhuthi on February 3, 2010, 13:52 GMT

    Why unneccessarily make so much fuss about South Africa not having great tweakers.Their pace attack with Steyn,Morkel,Parnell can very easily make up for it.It is quite clear that SA will go with a three-pronged pace attack and any of the spinners who,if not run through our Indian batting line-up,can at least prepare to contend.Mind you,a bowling attack with great pace and bounce,which is what will be on offer for both the tests,for about 15-20overs will at least be able to pick 3-4 wickets,if the Indian batsmen do not apply themselves.SA are more than capable of inflicting this.All they need to do is maintain the pressure on the Indian batsmen,get Sehwag as early as possible,and it is going to be challenging for India to cope with the absence of Dravid and even more so for the likes of Badrinath and Vijay to do well.If India manages to come out with flying colours despite all this,we are,for sure,on the right track.

  • Dre on February 3, 2010, 13:44 GMT

    I am in total agreement with most of the comments here but still it seems like there will be some who don't understand that India pitches are not even that conducive to spin anymore! They're not sporting for any type of bowler and not many of us has a problem with a sporting turning track. I want a rank turner as much as I want a seaming wicket it makes for good cricket. The only problem is that most pitches in Ind these days (probly 3 out of 4) are not sporting for any type of bowler! On tv, I saw Danish Kaneria bowl in AUS (so called seamer friendly place) n he got alot more turn and life than Murali, Herath, Harbhajan and Mishra got on any pitch in the Ind vs. Sri-Lanka series. Spinners r good for balance and they bowl long spells therefore a decent 1 is needed on almost ANY track. The fact that SA struggle with it means that they will be afraid to give their quicks a break, that I think is why spin could cost them.If the pitches did turn, Harris and co WOULD BE ABLE to bowl ok.

  • Robert on February 3, 2010, 13:20 GMT

    Roelef van der Merwe should be given a chance in test matches despite his poor showing against England recently. Merwe probably spins it more than Harris and Botha when bowling well and is probably an overrall better cricketer than the other 2; his batting is OK and his fielding is world class. He is also left handed so he has an advantage over most spinners and so probably only needs to develop an arm ball like Vettori and then he would be even more of a handful.

  • Srinivas Bharath on February 3, 2010, 12:11 GMT

    It has more to do with the ability to play spin. Their spin brigade of harris and botha are much better than bhajji and co. I would still suggest that we go in with a turning track because Mithun can bowl on any wicket and virender Sehwag is a better bowler than the other spinners on view ( sounds ironic but the form book says it all. Ravinder Jadeja could have been played instead of badrinath. Anyways hope India wins.

  • V on February 3, 2010, 11:19 GMT

    Indians have the edge no doubt on these wickets but if SA dig deep and bat well they will stand a chance.

  • Anshuman on February 3, 2010, 6:46 GMT

    I dont know why is there so much fuss aout India producing spinning wickets. No one asks when SA or Aus provide bouncy and seamer friendly wickets especially for sub continental teams visiting. i am all for sporting wickets but dont accuse Indians only if we provide spin friendly wickets. After all every country makes pitches according to its strengths.

  • Mark on February 3, 2010, 6:26 GMT

    The spinning problem is the difference bewtween the teams. Harris, although not a great spinner, has deceptive pace and mixes it up a lot. But, he has lost form and this could cost SA, as it did against England. I cannot see India preparing pace friendly pitches, so it will be good to see how SA's speedsters adapt to the slower wickets. SA do play well in India, unless they have a pitch like the last one they played (which was later condemned by the ICC). India are a solid side, with quality players and this will reaaly be a clash of two of the three best.

  • deepak on February 3, 2010, 6:12 GMT

    i think it is the best time for the selectors to shunt test unfit yuvraj out of the team.dinesh karthik manish pandey rohit sharma and vijay are the future batsmen with dk having the added advantge of being wicket keeper and a better one as well

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