Lessons in spin for South Africa's young hopefuls
Most of the South African batsmen struggled during the 3-0 Test series loss in India last year; Temba Bavuma was an exception. He made 56 runs in the only Test he played, in Delhi. He described it as as the "toughest piece of batting I've had to do in my life", but his patience and temperament spoke louder than his scores.
In India again, six months later, for a spin camp organised by Cricket South Africa in Mumbai, Bavuma said he was using his recent international experience to build on his skills and knowledge to play spin better.
"I was quite impressed after the last tour of India, of myself personally," Bavuma told ESPNcricinfo. "Unfortunately, I didn't get to feature in the majority of the series; I only got to play the last Test. I hold my head quite high after that Test. Coming here I wanted to build on my knowledge of spin, work on my defence and my attacking options against the spinners, whether they are turning it away or into me.
"I've experienced the conditions before and I had an understanding of what to expect. Speaking to Amol [Muzumdar, the former Mumbai captain] has been refreshing; it is always good to get a different perspective. Just to understand his mindset, his strategies and tactics against playing spin was quite beneficial. He emphasised the importance of keeping your shape, watching the ball coming onto the bat and the significance of a good defence."
The week-long camp that concluded in Mumbai on May 21 comprised 14 players - a mix of upcoming spinners and batsmen. CSA hired the services of two former Mumbai players and veterans of Indian domestic cricket, the left-arm spinner Nilesh Kulkarni and the batsman Amol Muzumdar, to put the players through their paces.
During practice matches against local players, Kulkarni would give feedback to the spinners, explain the importance of constructing an over and setting of fields in specific ways. South African batsmen and bowlers would mostly play in pairs and would stimulate Test-match situations, planning how to play in the first two hours of the day, how to strategise after lunch, and thereafter.
Claude Henderson, South Africa's spin bowling coach, oversaw the camp and often stood in the slips to observe players during practice games, and would advise them during breaks. "For the more experienced cricketers, you will take it to the next level and talk about variations, changing of pace and exposing the batsman's weaknesses," Henderson explained. "With the younger guys, who have never been to India and are just starting out their careers, we focus on technique and getting them to understand the game of cricket."
To help South Africa prepare for the India tour in October last year, CSA tried to set up spin camps in India twice, but wasn't successful. A lack of familiarity with Indian conditions contributed to a one-sided Test series. Successful on the third attempt, CSA sent the players to India in May, months after their series loss and with no tour to the subcontinent in sight.
"Unfortunately, in the first year we wanted to come here and it couldn't be done," HD Ackerman, CSA's batting consultant, said. "There was a bit of a problem between the Indian and South African cricket boards which I think had to do with our CEO, who at the time had been with the ICC. So getting here was tough. So we ended up going to Sri Lanka on short notice. It wasn't bad but the facilities weren't quite what we were expecting - the accommodation for the players was a little bit of a problem."
Dates did not work out between the boards the second time CSA tried to schedule a camp in India, in 2015. CSA were forced to conduct the camp in Pretoria instead. Two batsmen who were part of both camps - Stiaan van Zyl and Dane Vilas - then toured India with the Test side, and both had a difficult time against skillful spinners on turning tracks. While Van Zyl, who was dismissed all five times by R Ashwin, scored 56 runs at an average of 11.20, Vilas, who was preferred over Quinton de Kock as the first-choice wicketkeeper, managed 60 runs from seven innings at 8.57.
Batting against spin has been touted as one the major weaknesses whenever South Africa tour the subcontinent. Even though they are not scheduled to visit India or Sri Lanka anytime soon, South Africa will hope learnings from these camps will benefit the younger players.
Vishal Dikshit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo