Gritty runs make the difference for South Africa

Faf du Plessis takes out the sweep BCCI

They say catches win matches, and we know wickets win matches but what about centuries? Do they also win matches?

Instinct would say yes; evidence would say hell, yes, but South Africa's recent performances against India also says hundreds are not essential to victory, not even to a series victory.

The only three-figure score across the first two matches is Virat Kohli's at Centurion, where he made up half his team's first-innings score and took them to within 28 runs of South Africa's.

But it has not been enough. India have only one other individual score over 50; South Africa have seven in all, from five different players, and have totaled over 250 three times in four innings. India have only crossed 250 once and Faf du Plessis has hailed the team effort his men have put in to collectively crush the top-ranked Test side. "We feel as an opposition that India is very reliant on Virat to score runs," du Plessis said. "So, that's the difference. AB [de Villiers] has scored runs, Dean [Elgar], Aiden [Markram], I've scored runs. Everyone has chipped in."

De Villiers' runs have included a tempo-changing 65 and 35 at Newlands and an impressive 80 in the second innings in Centurion when South Africa were reeling at 3 for 2, their lead only 31. He has made the biggest impact of South Africa's batsmen but other contributions have mattered too. Du Plessis' 62 was the steadying hand in Cape Town, when South Africa were reduced to 12 for 3, Markram's 94 and Hashim Amla's 80 allowed South Africa to set up well in Centurion, and Elgar's 61 in the second innings at SuperSport Park sunk an anchor while de Villiers made waves at the other end.

What's interesting to note is that batsmen of different styles have scored runs for South Africa. Markram is aggressive in his run-scoring approach but Elgar is a grinder with a temperament similar to his opening predecessor Graeme Smith's; Amla is known for attractive stroke-play, de Villiers has become even more forceful than before, and du Plessis remains the master of the blockathon while somehow managing to add runs at the same time.

Du Plessis spoke about these differences as being the ability of his players to recognise their roles. Not everybody can be de Villiers and set the stadium alight and Elgar, for one, has understood that. "Those small nitty-gritty 70s, 80s, all count as well. In a close series like this, those are the knocks that are going to come in handy," Elgar said.

But the purists may still want to see a South African hundred in this series, especially as the Australia Tests loom and because a lack of big scores has been a problem for South Africa in recent times. There was only centurion in England last winter and only one in New Zealand in March. Both times that person was Elgar.

Last year's statistics are skewed by the 11 centuries South Africa scored in home series against Sri Lanka over the 2016-17 summer - five hundreds to five different players in three Tests - and Bangladesh in September-October last year where six hundreds were scored, two each by Elgar and Amla and one each by Markram and du Plessis.

In those series, which were played at home against subcontinental opposition, on pitches that were mostly placid, especially against Bangladesh, and the opposition attacks barely barked, never mind bit.

This contest against India is proving far tougher. Conditions have been tougher to bat in, and the Indian attack has mostly lived up to its billing of being the most varied and challenging to tour South Africa. Bhuvneshwar Kumar was particularly tough to play at Newlands and puzzlingly dropped in Centurion while Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Hardik Pandya have all asked some questions of South Africa. Of particular interest is how they have kept Quinton de Kock - the only batsmen not to score a fifty - quiet. De Kock's struggles against offspin are becoming a matter that needs addressing but R Ashwin has only dismissed him once. The other three times, he has been drawn forward, once trapped lbw and twice nicked off, and his lack of footwork is the more pertinent issue.

All that may be secondary to proceedings at the Wanderers next week, where a fire-and-brimstone surface is being prepared and the chances of most batsmen reaching a century severely diminished. But one group of people who will be interested in South Africa's batting performance are timezones away in Australia. Steven Smith and co will travel to these shores in six weeks' time for a four-Test series that will no doubt be billed as a battle of the quicks (and Smith v de Villiers), and there, centuries may really win matches.