Spin deficiency can hurt South Africa
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