South Africa v India, 1st Test, Johannesburg, 3rd day December 20, 2013

Smith runs out of options and ideas

With Morne Morkel out of action and Imran Tahir misfiring, South Africa's captain endured a difficult juggle with limited resources

Match Point: 'Can't understand Smith's tactics'

It took a few seconds and some eye-rubbing to realise which South African was assigned to bowl the over before tea. AB de Villiers. As if that wasn't astounding enough, there was the sight of Hashim Amla strapping on the wicketkeepers' pads and gloves to take in. It really happened.

Such sights are not all that unusual. When things are trundling along and not much is happening, a captain has to try something different to catch the opposition off-guard. Graeme Smith did it in Dubai when he brought Dean Elgar on to bowl to a Pakistan partnership that had racked up 197. Misbah-ul-Haq tried to slog him into the next Emirate and was caught at slip. Concentration can lapse, mistakes can happen.

The difference between that day and this one was in the message, as Daryll Cullinan explained on the tea-time Match Point show on this website. Elgar is a part-time spinner with 33 first-class wickets and does turn his arm over on occasion. De Villiers, before this one, had only bowled 38 overs in his decade-long first-class career, and last bowled in a Test match seven years ago. And it's not as though Smith didn't have other options.

Apart from JP Duminy, who had not bowled a ball at that stage, there was Faf du Plessis, who bowls occasionally, or Smith himself. In hindsight, he probably turned to de Villiers for a little bit of fun but with India 140 runs ahead with eight wickets in hand, it may not have been the ideal time for a laugh. By stumps, it turned out South Africa would have little reason for giggles of any description, as they appeared bereft of ideas.

Their day had already threatened to be difficult in the over before lunch when Morne Morkel was helped off the field after hurting his ankle. He had only bowled two overs before that but the signs were obvious that he would have an important role to play. In the 12 balls he bowled, he generated steep bounce, which could have helped keep India quiet. With him out of the equation, someone else had to do that job.

The person should have been Imran Tahir. Although he is a naturally attacking bowler, Tahir had to contain as well. His first ball today was evidence he could not.

Tahir offered a full toss first up and leaked runs in a manner somewhat reminiscent of his performance in Adelaide in November 2012, particularly when he dropped Cheteshwar Pujara on 51 off his own bowling. His confidence seemed to dip after that, and his bouquet of overpitched deliveries and full tosses became rosier. Selection-wise, South Africa may be wondering if they erred by picking Tahir, considering the opposition.

The Indian line-up is confident and comfortable against legspin and with Tahir's history of over-enthusiasm leading to lack of control, they may ask themselves if a conservative option would have worked better. Robin Peterson was in the squad and could have played the holding role or they could have opted for another seamer, with Duminy operating as the spinner, although today's evidence may contradict that.

Besides offering little threat, which is not Duminy's primary role, he also could not keep his end quiet. Smith had no choice but to use him for parts of the day as a stop-gap to avoid over-bowling the three seamers he had left.

Already, Jacques Kallis' workload was more than ideal. His usual quota had previously been described as 10-12 overs a day but he had to bowl 14. He used the short ball well and attacked the stumps to produce two lbw shouts, but he seemed to lose bite later on.

The same could be said of Dale Steyn, who had a rare wicketless day. As Vernon Philander pointed out, "he did not bowl badly"; he just didn't find any swing. Steyn cannot be expected to produce in every innings and Philander said he could easily "rock up and take five tomorrow," but it was obvious what a misfiring Steyn and an injured Morkel can do to South Africa's morale.

Philander did his part in leading the attack. He was South Africa's best bowler on the day and in his first two spells looked as though he would take a wicket every other ball. He got good bounce, he beat the bat, he moved the ball just enough to create tension. Most importantly, he zoned in consistently on an off-stump target.

That was the main difference between the South African and Indian bowlers and Philander recognised it. "They attacked the stumps all the time. We didn't do that well, even in the first innings," he said. Despite Philander being the person who was doing that, he was used less than he could have been.

After spells of five, two and five overs in the first 33 overs of India's innings, he returned for two spells of three overs each, with long breaks in between. He was nursing a toothache and is still in some discomfort, which may have prompted Smith to use him sparingly, although he indicated he was ready for a bigger workload. "We knew when Morne went down, we would have to bowl a bit more," he said. "Luckily I am not in Graeme's shoes at the moment."

South Africa fought back after a middling first day and Philander believed they can do it again. But they will need a sharper plan this time, against batsmen who have adjusted and thrived in these conditions. "They left very well when they came in and the spinners were whom they attacked," he said. "Then they made the seamers come back on when they were tired."

That means it will be up to Tahir to find a way to contain so the quicks can attack and South Africa can embark on some form of damage limitation. "There is not a lot of turn on offer but hopefully he [Tahir] will get a plan together sometime soon," Philander said.

Playing an 11-a-side game with ten men is tough. Trying to do it with nine is tougher. That is essentially what Smith was left to work with. If South Africa are to salvage something from this bowling performance and give their batsmen a chance to save the game, he either cannot be left in that position again or has to learn to manage it better.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mashuq on December 22, 2013, 16:49 GMT

    Fabulous game but Tahir still has to go. Agree with @AltafPatel on (December 21, 2013, 14:06 GMT) that they will need "one more seamer in place of a spinner at Kingsmead. Tsotsobe and Abbott to replace Tahir and Morkel. Tough on Kleinveldt but Abbott's return to form warrants a punt.

  • David on December 22, 2013, 0:37 GMT

    @ Faakhir Mehmood thinks that "Steyn historically has never intimidated Indian batsmen like he has prevailed over batsmen from other countries...."

    How strange then that Steyn's best bowling figures were in ……. India!

  • Altaf on December 21, 2013, 14:09 GMT

    @Rajshekar Gudapaty You mean India is the best test team who lose their last 8 consecutive overseas tests ! For SA, they face similar kind of situation recently against Pak in first test in UAE but came back great in next match. So don't give expert advice based on just 1 innings.

  • Altaf on December 21, 2013, 14:06 GMT

    It's not about Tahir's form, but selection in wrong match. Even Ashvin bowled only 6 overs in first innings which means pitch doesn't have anything for spinners. Smith as home captain and with much experience knew that very well then why he didn't go for one more seamer in place of spinner ? It's good example of failure of over-management. Both Smith and Donald made the mistakes.

  • Roger on December 21, 2013, 12:27 GMT

    SA rips apart a batting line up and people jump up "best bowling line up in the world"...perhaps it was bad shot selection and bad batting. a batting line up stands against SA and people go "oh! what bad bowing (the same which had 4 best seamers)", no one credits the batting.

    Here I am sure it was the case of great skills, both mental and defensive, shown by India. There were hundred's of wicket taking deliveries bowled. Just brilliant from Pujara and Kohli. Once they were gone, the pitch seemed a different one.

  • Roger on December 21, 2013, 12:19 GMT

    @Cpt_Meanster: I din't call them that. It was a sarcastic take on those who call them that. three_tamil has understood my meaning. My intentions were to hit out on those who instead of appreciating Indian batters theorize as to how Morkel's absence have aided India. If Steyn had gotten himself injured, they would have said he would have ripped through the Indian line up in not time!

  • Dummy4 on December 21, 2013, 9:25 GMT

    Truth is that India's performance has stunned everyone. South Africa looks tired. Their hastily arranged ODI series against Pakistan may seem like a bad idea after all. Secondly the one sided ODI series against India lead Proteas to take Indians easy and get over confident. Steyn historically has never intimidated Indian batsmen like he has prevailed over batsmen from other countries. Indian victory by a margin well over 200 runs seems imminent.

  • Android on December 21, 2013, 9:22 GMT

    To say Tahir was out of form is doing him a huge favour. He was simply too afraid not about bowling form. He does not have a big heart. He needs counselling more than practice

  • Tanmay on December 21, 2013, 9:05 GMT

    Kolkata 2010....with India trailing 0-1 in 2 match series and desperate to win the test...Dhoni lost services of Zaheer Khan after only 6 overs in 2nd innings...with only a day left to pick remaining 8 South African wickets to win the test & draw the series & retain their number 1 test ranking, India had only 3 bowlers - Harbhajan,Ishant & Amit Mishra...they won the test with 8 overs to spare...

  • Pankaj on December 21, 2013, 8:40 GMT

    Maybe it's time to step back and view the situation. South Africa have lost the services of a bowler - they now have three frontliners. India has the same. South Africa has world number 1 and 2 operational. India probably has number 15 and 30. South Africa and India both have one specialist spinner and a few part-time options in that department. South Africa are a batsman short - but on home turf and against a team who is nothing but a bully on subcontinental roads. All this could have been said yesterday, but it would not have been fair. Now that there is performance to speak of - God's sake, wake up!

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