Zimbabwe v South Africa, only Test, Harare, 3rd day August 11, 2014

South Africa opt for substance over style

The expectation was that South Africa would flaunt their power against Zimbabwe, but the reality has been much different with the No. 1 Test team made to grind for every run

South Africa know how to get stuck in. They have done it three times in the recent past - Adelaide, Johannesburg, Colombo - and they have done it exceptionally well.

That also means they know how to get stuck. They did that in Harare.

There was no match to save, no series on the line and no menace. They were not playing on a strip of sandpaper or confronted with the craftiest opposition. But there was a 15-over period in the afternoon session where JP Duminy and Vernon Philander scored just nine runs.

That was one instance. There were others. For periods of the play, the run-rate hovered around one to the over. The default deliveries were either full but not fearsome or wide outside off stump and the default shots were the stoic forward defence or the haughty disregard that could be ignored the same the way the criticism is.

South Africa have managed to block out the chorus being uttered from the Centurion, the stands and even much of the media box. "This is not how Australia would have played," people are saying. They would prefer aggression to the safety-first South African way, especially when combined with the fact that South Africa are No. 1 and up against an attack that can best be described as workmanlike and a pitch that is sluggish but not suffocating.

Against those observations could be a curt South Africa reply along the lines of, "Well Australia are not No. 1 and don't have an eight-year unbeaten record on the road," but it has been little more measured. "It doesn't always have to look pretty," Faf du Plessis said. "This game is one of those situations where you do the hard yards and maybe people don't see it as flashy or it doesn't look like the No. 1 team in the world but it's what we know we need to do."

Why? Because South Africa ideally only wanted to bat once and bat long. "We made a decision that this wicket would be the toughest to bat on day five. We wanted to score all our runs in the first innings irrespective of how much time it took," du Plessis said. "We wanted to get as close to 400 as possible even though it took us longer than people think it should take us."

South Africa used up 10 hours and 39 minutes and 158.3 overs, but their lead of 141 may not be enough for them to record the innings victory they were after. No matter. They have Plan B. "If we could bowl them out for 200 or 250, and then knock off 100 or so runs, that will be fine," du Plessis said.

It may yet turn out to be just fine but until it is, South Africa have allowed Zimbabwe to hope and that is what they are being criticised for. Because of what they call their respect for the game and opposition South Africa do not see this outing as an opportunity to show off against a team who were not expected to push the match into a fourth day. But their deference has also led to them not searching for an opportunity to dominate, which is something they could have done irrespective of the conditions.

Run-scoring should not be as laboured as South Africa made it look even though the surface is slow and the bowling slower. There was enough on offer to keep things ticking over. South Africa's lead could easily have touched 200 if they had batted with the same intent Quinton de Kock did. He was the only specialist batsmen to show signs of life, charging the spinner and searching for singles.

In the end, South Africa's first innings run-rate of 2.50 was the slowest ever against their neighbours. It was also their third slowest in any innings in which they have faced more than 100 overs in the last decade, which sounds too complicated to really comprehend but Zimbabwe are happy to claim it as their doing.

"I give the credit to my bowlers," Stephen Mangongo, the Zimbabwe coach, said. "They stuck to their disciplines, they know their strengths and weakness and they are not 145kph bowlers, they are medium pace. It is always difficult for people to score when they bowl line and length all day."

And if you are South Africa, it can be made to look much more difficult than it really is.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Billy on August 12, 2014, 20:06 GMT

    Let's be very clear here. South Africa are free to play cricket the way they choose, win the way they choose, draw as many games as they want, avoid defeat as many times as they want. That is not what is at dispute for me. For me, the key is they lost their number one ranking for a period of time! And they lost it because they draw too many matches. Therefore, they have been too defensive OR relatively less defensive than the team who overtook them: Australia. Put simply, one particular set of results forms a micro view of the bigger picture. I would not be arguing anything if Australia had only won the Ashes 1-nil out of a five test series and South Africa had beaten India 2-nil at home instead of 1-nil. The rankings would have ensured South Africa stayed at number one regardless of the Australia-South Africa series outcome. So we have to criticise South African tactics over a number of years. They have had chances to win more test matches but chose to draw them.

  • Clement on August 12, 2014, 18:43 GMT

    @GermanPlayer It's not so much sour grapes as people want to see a team winning in flashy style. To be accurate, they believe that dominating a game means an innings defeat to every team within 3 days. Also, people tend to have rose tinted hindsight. So if you're not like team X from era X, you're not good enough. South Africa has always been under rated, but they also under rate themselves. They are the greatest team to have never won a world cup, but it will happen eventually. They know they have the ability but are afraid to step up at times, hence you see a safety first approach. In this test, it wasn't safety first. It was batting to the conditions and the Zimbabweans' defensive bowling. They finished the game in 4 days and still had time to bat slowly. They had a game plan and executed it well. The biggest reason people don't like it is because it's not how they want it to be, but there are many different ways to win a game.

  • xxxxx on August 12, 2014, 10:18 GMT

    Like all other teams, South Africa have the absolute right to choose how they play their Test cricket and they have been very successful over the recent years.

    Of course, ultra defensive play is a turn-off for many, many fans and along with poor pitches and poor over rates constitute the greatest threats to our beloved form of the game.

  • Jay on August 12, 2014, 8:46 GMT

    I can see many people not happy with SAs tactics. Is it a case of sour grapes? SAns put a high price on their wickets. And apparently they are the only team that can do that at the moment.

    As for the Joburg run chase, its hard to score 15 runs off 12 balls when all the 9 fielders are on the boundary.

    Last of all, if you don't like SA, there are two other interesting series going on. And apparently, none of the two losing teams had the guts to bat out for a draw when they could have done that just by batting an extra hour(It rained the next two days in Manchester and Pakistan could have saved the test even if they had batted 20 more minutes)

  • Faan on August 12, 2014, 8:16 GMT

    @__PK That run chase was one of the best I have ever seen. Remember that Jacques was given out when he wasn't and he was batting at a healthy rate. If not for that, the risk would have been much lower and the chase could have been completed easily. SA made sure they won an abbreviated test series. Most countries would be proud be proud of their team. We certainly have some weird supporters.

  • Andrew on August 12, 2014, 7:33 GMT

    OK, but I agree, that test against India where they settled for a draw when they could have won was a bizarre one!

  • Muhammad on August 12, 2014, 7:20 GMT

    @Greatest_Game: I am not undermining South Africa team by any means. I didn't mean that South Africa haven't won any game convincingly. The thing is that in Cape Town test against Australia, they were about to repeat Adelaide episode of batting out the 5th day to restrict opposition from winning. Their plan didn't work this time and it's a good sign because Australia deserved to win just like they deserved to win in Adelaide. South African victory of perth was also very convincing. But Johannesburg test against India fell just short of making into records for highest run chase. It was a feat worth attempting for considering that just 8 runs were left and Philander and Steyn are more than capable of achieving that.

  • Billy on August 12, 2014, 6:28 GMT

    Agree with PK and disagree with Chris P. It was a gutless run chase because it shows the weak mentality of the South African test side. Fear of losing dominates their thinking, and so it affects their chance of winning. It hurt them against Australia. Dhoni started this back when India were number one, safety first mentality but we know what happened next.

  • Andrew on August 12, 2014, 6:25 GMT

    @_PK: "Playing for a draw"? Where do you get that idea? The South Africans are very well aware that Zimbabwe could crumble in their second innings against the top bowling attack and there is every chance they will win (by an innings) on day four. Zim will actually do very well to make SA bat again or take it to day five. SA know this very well and are executing the plan perfectly.

  • Paul on August 12, 2014, 6:25 GMT

    Chris_P thanks for clarifying my point. To come with 8 runs WITH PLENTY OF BALLS IN HAND and not attempt it for fear of losing is gutless. Anyone else not see that? And, yes, I'd be embarrassed to get that close and not even try. Wouldn't you be?

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