The merits of South Africa playing an extra fast bowler

Fifty-six spinners have conceded 200 or more runs in a Test match in India. None of them have done so while bowling as few overs as Dane Piedt did in Visakhapatnam.


Piedt ended the Test with a positive contribution, top-scoring with 56 in the fourth innings. But for all his ability with the bat - he has a hundred and 12 fifties in first-class cricket - he knows more than anyone else that he is a bowler first, and he will ultimately be judged on his deeds as an offspinner.

In Visakhapatnam, even when he wasn't necessarily bowling long-hops or half-volleys, Piedt didn't offer either a wicket threat or any means of keeping India's batsmen in check. There were times, particularly when Rohit Sharma and Mayank Agarwal were toying with him in the first innings, when you wondered how South Africa may have done had they played, in Piedt's place, someone bowling the same number of overs and conceding three-and-a-half runs an over, with or without the bonus of wickets.

That hypothetical bowler would have conceded 126 runs in 36 overs. That's 83 fewer runs across two innings. This might have meant India needing to bat for longer before declaring in either or both of their innings, or declaring with fewer runs on the board, either way giving South Africa a little more chance of ending the game with a result other than defeat.

And that's without taking into consideration the extra overs South Africa could have entrusted that hypothetical bowler with, and the subsequent reductions in the workloads of Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Keshav Maharaj, their three main bowlers, and the debutant batting allrounder Senuran Muthusamy.

Before the second Test in Pune, the Piedt question was posed to South Africa captain Faf du Plessis at a press conference; what he made of the offspinner's performance, and whether he was thinking of any change in the composition of his bowling attack. His reply suggested he was thinking of wickets rather than the control that the hypothetical three-and-a-half-runs-per-over bowler could bring.

"We are thinking what's going to be our most aggressive options to get 20 wickets," du Plessis said. "We didn't get 20 wickets the first Test and that's something I don't want to do again. We are planning for a pitch that will be a bit drier and that will spin."

It's true that the Visakhapatnam pitch didn't offer raging turn to spinners from either side, and the Pune track may well be more helpful. But on the eve of the Test there was also a fair amount of grass on the surface, and there could be some early dampness too, with the ground having soaked up plenty of rain over the last week or so.

India captain Virat Kohli said the dampness, if present, would help both the seamers and the spinners, and didn't think it would affect the composition of his attack. But South Africa could, and perhaps should, be thinking about which bowlers they pick.

Perhaps they should do so regardless of how much grass remains on the surface, or how much early moisture there is, or even how much turn it looks like offering as the game wears on. South Africa's squad contains no other spinner apart from the three they played in Visakhapatnam, but it does have two genuinely quick bowlers in Lungi Ngidi and Anrich Nortje. Nortje is uncapped, but Ngidi has excellent numbers from his first four Tests, and would be an automatic pick outside Asia.

Despite the conventional wisdom of needing two spinners in India, should South Africa play to their strengths, and simply play their best bowlers, even if that means playing only one frontline spinner?

Since South Africa's last tour of India in 2015-16, visiting fast bowlers have actually done better than visiting spinners in India. While it's been hard toil for both kinds of bowlers, the quicks have had a better average and economy rate than the spinners overall.

Spinners have taken five five-wicket hauls in India in this period. Two of them came from Nathan Lyon, who on Australia's 2016-17 tour enjoyed the best tour by a visiting spinner in India since the series-winning exploits of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar in 2011-12. The other three - Steve O'Keefe's twin six-fors in Pune in 2017 and Imran Tahir's 5 for 38 in Nagpur in 2015 - came on extreme dustbowls.

Fast bowlers have taken four five-wicket hauls in India in that time, one each by Kyle Abbott (Delhi, 2015), Ben Stokes (Mohali, 2016), Josh Hazlewood (Bengaluru, 2017) and Jason Holder (Hyderabad, 2018). None of those Tests was played on a greentop.

When Mohammed Shami ran through South Africa in the fourth innings in Visakhapatnam, he provided a reminder that good fast bowlers have always been able to get something out of Indian pitches. Conditions in Pune may or may not offer outright help to the quicks, but if a third fast bowler joins Philander and Rabada and provides a bit of control, South Africa can hope to challenge India's batsmen a little more than they have done so far in this series.