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Match Analysis

Careless South Africa show their subcontinental frailties

Their batsmen struggled yet again to strike a balance between attack and defence on a turning pitch

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Dean Elgar made 58 before edging Nauman Ali to slip  •  AFP

Dean Elgar made 58 before edging Nauman Ali to slip  •  AFP

Well done, Pakistan. In the 14 years since South Africa last visited you've managed to become subcontinental, or at least, more subcontinental than they (read: Mark Boucher, current coach and part of the last group of players to tour Pakistan in 2007) remember. In fact, you're even more subcontinental than you were just a few weeks ago, in the first-class competition, when the ball had the good grace not to turn from day one.
But for this match, you're so subcontinental that South Africa were ready to field not one, not two but all three of the spinners they brought with them. You're so subcontinental there were footmarks in the second session and Yasir Shah and Nauman Ali were turning the ball around corners. Well done Pakistan, you made South Africa expect spin and you outspun them. Or did you?
When South Africa assess what went wrong they will have to acknowledge that only one of the 10 wickets that fell was to a ball that turned. Faf du Plessis was on the receiving end of a beautifully flighted Yasir Shah delivery, that drifted in and turned away as he pushed at it. Everyone else could have done better, and they know it.
"It's an under-par score on that pitch," Dean Elgar said.
He was the biggest contributor to South Africa's total and could have added more but his decision-making was questionable, both when he sent Rassie van der Dussen back to be run out, and when he gifted a catch to slip. And while we could dissect whether Elgar's aggressive start contributed to his underwhelming end, we really need to talk about Quinton de Kock and Temba Bavuma.
When de Kock joined Elgar, South Africa had lost du Plessis and Yasir was starting to pose problems. He found sharp turn and drift and invited batsmen to come forward. De Kock negotiated him fairly well but there was obvious frustration. He got a sweep shot past fine leg for four but couldn't middle a reverse-sweep. But de Kock had only faced 22 balls when he decided to try and take on the bowling more aggressively and hit Nauman over cow corner. And he got it wrong. If South Africa had been 330 for 3 on the second morning and de Kock had played that shot, no matter, but they were 133 for 3, and not even halfway through the second session on the first day.
Mistakes when trying to be positive are understandable, and even excusable, when trying to conquer conditions one usually struggles in. It's why Sri Lanka were happy to see their line-up take on Anrich Nortje and Lungi Ngidi at SuperSport Park in the last Boxing Day Test. "Get runs before you get out," seems to be the mindset of choice and it's brave and entertaining until it's not. De Kock's shot was not. He needed to make a conservative choice because South Africa expect consistent runs from their No.5 and there are already enough questions over whether that is the best place for him to bat.
De Kock is already carrying the burden of captaincy and dealing with the claustrophobia of the biosecure bubble, something that Boucher said would be particularly difficult for de Kock because of his love of the outdoors. Should he also be batting somewhere he hasn't had much experience before?
The bulk of de Kock's Test runs have come at No.7, irrespective of whether that seems too low for him. With the inclusion of an allrounder in the team, de Kock is more likely to bat No.6 (his second-most favoured position) which also means he won't be stuck with the tail, if that's the fear of holding him back from No. 5. It would also allow Bavuma, in the XI as a specialist batsman, to come in higher and give him more opportunity to develop into the Test player South Africa want him to be and to work on the aspects of his game that need swift improvement.
It's almost as though Bavuma's approach is the opposite of de Kock's. "Stay in until you get out," which means he is prone to batting himself into a standstill, literally. He does not put away poor balls that deserve to be hit and he needs to rotate strike more so his scoring increases and he can avoid dismissals like the one we saw today. Bavuma was run-out having miscalculated a second run and the wait for him to add to his solitary Test hundred goes on.
George Linde and Keshav Maharaj will also be disappointed, Linde for getting a decent start and throwing it away when he holed out off Hasan Ali, and Maharaj for missing a straight one. Their attitude to building an innings could be described as dismissive of the work that needs to be put in at the start, which Elgar alluded to as he explained how to strike the balance between scoring runs and staying at the crease. "You've got to earn your right in your Test cricket," Elgar said. "We earned our right before lunch. We've got to earn the right again to create a platform again and just to build up a partnership again. It's about trusting your defence, trusting in your game a bit."
South Africa know they have a reputation for being unable to play spin and for crumbling on pitches that behave like this one. But that is not why they were bowled out for 220 today. It was because they felt they needed to rush into run-scoring rather than play themselves in. That's not to say this pitch is easy to play on. It is a strip on which bowlers do not need to have wickets handed to them because they can actually take them and that's what South Africa did.
With inconsistent bounce evident from early on, Kagiso Rabada bowled Abid Ali with one that kept low and then had Imran Butt caught off a delivery that reared up with a hint of extra bounce. As the variability increases, batting will become more difficult, which is what Elgar expects. "We know the pitch is going to become a little bit tougher to score on and we also have some very good spinners in our arsenal," he warned.
Already Keshav Maharaj has removed the Pakistan captain and though he might not have the ability to turn the ball like Yasir, this is his opportunity to play a starring role for a change. But all that said, Anrich Nortje made it clear that pace is still pace, and no matter how subcontinental Pakistan make it, fast and furious is often effective.
Well done then, Pakistan, for a deck that showed South Africa they have not advanced their thinking around spin as much as they suggested they had, or badly done, because your own batsmen have to navigate the same strip? The morning session on day two will tell.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent