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Match Analysis

Did South Africa get their selections and strategies right?

Their attack, promising on paper, proved to have neither much bark nor bite against the Indian top five

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
It's flat. The pitch and the bowling.
South Africa's Test summer began lethargically as their attack, promising on paper, proved to have neither much bark nor bite against the Indian top five.
Maybe it's not entirely unexpected.
This is South Africa's least experienced pace pack in terms of Test wickets in a home Test against India since 1997. Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Wiaan Mulder and debutant Marco Jansen had 259 Test wickets between them before this Test started, and 213 of them belonged to Rabada. Compare that to the 976 Test wickets South Africa's quicks had under their belts in the first Test of the last series they played against India at home, in 2018, and it's not difficult to see why there was a vast difference in performance.
There was also, of course, a vast difference in personnel and conditions. Three years ago, South Africa fielded an XI that included Rabada, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel and it was the first and only time they played together. More's the pity it wasn't at the Wanderers although that Newlands surface had a decent amount of grass on it, and with rain in the air, the ball moved around. This pitch is not as sporting.
"The wicket did less than we thought it was going to do," Lungi Ngidi said. "I expected a bit more swing."
Instead, it was slow upfront and South Africa were unable to find the right lengths for most of the first session. They sent down a combination of too wide, too straight and too full and did not make the Indian openers play enough. Collectively, they produced only 22 false strokes in 28 overs in the morning session, and 60 in the entire day, which is not even one an over.
Which brings us to the first question we need to ask about their approach on the first day:
Why didn't South Africa pick Duanne Olivier?
Not only is Olivier the leading wicket-taker in the domestic first-class competition this season but he has bowled more overs in red-ball cricket in the last six months than anyone else in the squad, and a heck of a lot more than Rabada or Ngidi, who had delivered none before today. Although Olivier left South Africa on a Kolpak deal with a reputation for being able to bowl short but not offer too much else, he has returned with a different skill set and has proved his ability to pitch it up on Highveld surfaces. Olivier now plays his cricket at the Wanderers, where he has taken 24 of the 28 wickets he has in the four-day competition, and where he has shown himself to be a match-winner for the table-topping Lions.
South Africa know he possesses all these qualities. Dean Elgar said as much earlier in the week and so did bowling coach Charl Langeveldt. Speaking to ESPNcricinfo ahead of this series, Langeveldt said, "He has changed. He used to be an enforcer, now he has more controlled aggression so he can do both roles: where he can hold the run rate, keep it down, and take wickets. With the new ball, he gives us the option where he can take it away from the right-hand batter and then he has got the change-up, the wobbler."
Sounds good but not good enough for the series opener. Instead, South Africa opted to give 2.06 metre-tall left-arm quick Jansen a debut, banking on his variation to give them an advantage. It was a gamble, considering Jansen's lack of experience (19 first-class caps), India's recent history which shows a distinct lack of struggle against left-arm fast bowlers, and the sense of occasion, especially as it was just four years ago that a teenage Jansen was starstruck and taking selfies with the Indian players in the nets. Then, Jansen beat Kohi three times in a row; today, he managed it twice in between some shorter deliveries and several aimed at the pads. While there is no doubting that Jansen is talented and could go on to play many matches for South Africa, he was too inconsistent to properly threaten the batters, and so, the reason for his selection, especially against the backdrop of Olivier's availability, must be looked at.
Cricket South Africa confirmed that Olivier is fully fit and there are no niggles that kept him sidelined. Ngidi didn't know why Olivier was overlooked. "It was probably a senior call," Ngidi said. "Even myself, having not played cricket in a while, I didn't know if I could get the nod but we pick the team that we think is best going to give us the result."
Selection convener Victor Mpitsang was asked for the reason Olivier was not included but responded only to extend festive greetings and did not offer any further explanation. That can only leave us to wonder if Olivier had to be benched because he was not able to source a Test cap after framing his when he took a Kolpak deal in 2018. (Disclaimer: that's not really what we think).
Jansen's inability to create sustained periods of pressure left it up to the rest of the attack to attempt to both control and attack and in trying to do both, they succeeded in neither. Though South Africa were much improved after lunch, and bowled more on a good length or just short of it and made India's batters play more, it took a moment of sheer luck to drag them back into the game. How HawkEye saw that the Ngidi delivery that slid in from middle stump and beat Mayank Agarwal's inside edge was clipping leg stump is anyone's guess but it gave South Africa a breakthrough.
They had clearly planned for what came next. Elgar placed Keegan Petersen at backward short leg, further back than usual, for Cheteshwar Pujara, who lunged forward to defend and inside-edged onto his pad to give Petersen the catch. And that's where our next question must be asked: Why couldn't South Africa capitalise on that passage of play? The answer may lie in how they chose to (not) use their spearhead, Rabada.
After Ngidi's double-strike, Jansen was brought on at the other end to bowl to Kohli and was then replaced by Keshav Maharaj, while Mulder took over from Ngidi. At a time when South Africa should have been searching for wickets, they did not call on Rabada. At that stage, he had delivered 13 overs, six in his opening spell and seven in a later spell, broken into five and two by the lunch interval. Although his post-lunch work finished four overs before Ngidi's wickets, it may have been prudent to bring him back for a quick burst.
Rabada only returned after tea, where he found some late swing and peppered KL Rahul with short balls in his most impressive but also most expensive spell. He overstepped four times in those four overs, which cost 20 runs and was not used again until the second new ball when he changed ends and delivered a further three overs. In total, Rabada delivered 20 overs, more than any of the other seamers but South Africa may want to consider if they used him in the most effective way.
They can ask the same questions about almost every aspect of their performance on the opening day of their international season, from selections to strategy, and will realise if they don't come up with some answers soon, it could be a very long, tough summer.
Already, this match could get long. Ngidi remains hopeful South Africa can dismiss India for "anything under 350," but acknowledged they all need to bowl a bit more like Rabada to tie India up.
"It is a good deck if you bat properly. The fuller balls don't do as much. You've really got to be accurate with your lengths. KG showed us that with good discipline, the game goes nowhere," Ngidi said. And with where South Africa are now, nowhere could be good enough.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent