When the South Africa vs India series began, it was clear that the key battle would be between the pace attacks of the two teams (and, by extension, how well the opposition batters would handle them). India had the full array of their best fast bowlers at their disposal, but South Africa were missing one of their main men: Anrich Nortje, with 28 wickets in his last six Tests
at 23.35, was ruled out due to injury.
Given the lack of experience of the South African pace attack - apart from Kagiso Rabada
, none of the others had played more than 10 Test matches going into the series - and the awesome recent record
of India's pace line-up, it was generally thought that India had the advantage in that aspect despite being the touring team, and hence were favourites to win the series.
It certainly didn't pan out that way, despite the start in Centurion
. Over the course of the three Tests, the South African fast bowlers
collected 59 wickets at 20.13 compared with 46 by India's pacers
at 24.58. The gap wasn't very large - and it certainly wasn't as big as it was when South Africa toured India
in 2019-20 - but in a series where spinners were insignificant (the tally of four spin wickets is the fourth-lowest ever in a series of three or more Tests), the difference in numbers for the fast bowlers was the difference between the two teams.
India's pace attack was ahead in the first innings of the three Tests, averaging 17.46 to South Africa's 22.37, but the second innings was a no-contest: India's average bloated to 41, while South Africa conceded fewer than half those many runs per wicket. In fact, South Africa's pace strike rate in the second innings was better than India's average.
The control stats
South Africa's fast bowlers had the better average and strike rate, but in terms of drawing false shots from the opposition batters, there was little to choose between the two pace attacks - in fact, India's pace attack drew a marginally higher percentage of false shots (19.6%) than South Africa's (18.3%). However, South Africa's fast bowlers were better in terms of converting those errors into wickets - they took one wicket for every 7.3 false shots played by India's batters, while India's pacers could only convert one out of every 9.6 errors into a wicket.
A Test-wise break-up of these numbers is interesting. In the first Test, India's pace attack elicited a marginally higher percentage of errors from South Africa's batters than the home team's fast bowlers did from India's batters, but more importantly, they converted a high number of those errors into wickets - the rate was a wicket every 6.6 errors, compared to 7.3 for South Africa's bowlers.
Through the rest of the series, the rate of errors per wicket for India's bowlers increased to more than 11, while South Africa's remained in the region of around seven to eight.
Also, while in the first two Tests, the fast bowlers from the winning team elicited more false responses than those of the losing team, that did not hold true in the decider in Cape Town. India's bowlers drew a far higher percentage of errors, but their conversion rate fell to 12.3 false shots per dismissal - their worst of the series - while South Africa's improved to 6.7, their best of the series. In the fourth innings of the Test, India's pacers forced 59 errors, but had only three wickets to show for it, a rate of nearly 20 false shots per dismissals.
And looking at the numbers of individual bowlers, the one who led the wickets tally also drew the highest percentage of false responses: batters had an error rate of 22.58% against Rabada, and their rate of errors per dismissal was 8.1. Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami had very similar error rates, while Duanne Olivier was the only fast bowler with an error rate below 15. That also illustrates just how tough it was for batters in this series. The false shots per dismissal stat has a wide range, from 5.7 for Lungi Ngidi to 18 for Mohammed Siraj.
Finding the right length
After the Johannesburg Test, Rahul Dravid spoke about
the difference in the pace attacks of the two teams. He reckoned that the taller South African bowlers were able to take advantage of the bounce and the unevenness of the surface better than the Indian seamers. An analysis of the lengths bowled by the two pace attacks brings out these differences quite clearly.
Back of a length or short was clearly South Africa's go-to length, and those were the areas where their quick bowlers were far more effective than India's: they averaged 14.57 to the opposition's 38.54. They also bowled nearly half their deliveries at those lengths, compared to 41% for India. The good-length areas were equally effective for both teams, but the fuller lengths worked much better for India.
The stats for Rabada and Marco Jansen, the two top bowlers for South Africa, sum up how effective they were with these lengths. Jansen bowled 104 full-length balls and leaked 138 runs, taking two wickets (a rate of 7.96 runs per over); when he bowled back of a length or short, he had figures of 10 for 94 from 312 balls (1.8 runs per over). The corresponding numbers for Rabada were: 2 for 93 from 75 full-length balls, and 12 for 199 from 383 back-of-a-length or short balls.
A record catch
The lengths that South Africa's quick bowlers - and the bouncier pitches - bowled meant that they were always likelier to get batters out caught than through any other means, but in this series the percentage of such dismissals was astounding. Out of the 60 wickets that India lost, 55 were through catches, and 54 of these were to the fast bowlers (Keshav Maharaj's only wicket was also a caught dismissal). Never before have so many batters from a team been dismissed caught in a series of three or fewer matches; the previous record was 48
Of the 54 caught dismissals that South Africa's fast bowlers effected, 30 were off deliveries that were short or back of a length, and 16 were a good length. Only eight caught dismissals were off full balls. And 42 of those 54 catches were taken in the cordon behind the stumps, from leg slip to backward point.
On the other hand, caught dismissals contributed to only 26 of the 43 wickets that India's fast bowlers took; the remaining 17 were split between bowled (12) and lbw (5). And of those 26 catches, 21 went to the cordon behind the wicket, which is half the number of wickets that South Africa took in that manner.
S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. @rajeshstats