Match Analysis

South Africa's batting rebuild will take time

They did collapse against India but that's because most of the players in the top six are still getting used to Test cricket

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
28-Dec-2021
It looks bad. At 130 runs behind and dismissed for their lowest total at a ground where they have only previously lost to England, it sounds bad. And with two days left to play, the result may end up being bad. But believe it or not, South Africa's batters weren't that bad in their first innings at SuperSport Park, because India's attack was that good.
As they did on their home patch in 2019, India's seamers demonstrated accuracy, aggression and pace that was far superior to their hosts. South Africa will look back at the first morning and know that is where they made their biggest mistakes. They should have built pressure, attacked the stumps and made India play instead of offering a mish-mash of lengths, mostly outside the off stump. They will also know that since Vernon Philander's retirement they don't have someone who can move the ball off the seam as skillfully as Mohammed Shami, and for now, that is the biggest difference.
Shami was unplayable in his first spell, so much so that there was nothing Aiden Markram could do about the delivery that nipped away to beat the outside edge and hit the top of off. Similarly, there were very few other ways Dean Elgar could have approached the ball Jasprit Bumrah bowled that angled across him. If Elgar left it, he may have been out lbw, so he chose to attempt to defend, got an edge and was caught behind. It's Test cricket and opening batters can expect things like this to happen, sometimes even to both of them in the same innings.
You could argue that Keegan Petersen and Rassie van der Dussen's dismissals involved an element of carelessness because Petersen found himself stuck on the crease and van der Dussen was playing away from his body but those were decisions taken in a cauldron. Petersen is only in his third Test, his captain had been dismissed in the opening over, he made it to lunch and looked as though he had settled but after the interval, made an error of judgment against a fine bowler. Van der Dussen faced 18 balls for his three runs, negotiated the variable bounce, and, the ball before he was dismissed, edged short of second slip, also driving away from the body. He will analyse whether he needs to tighten his defences but will also admit India were relentless, especially with the new ball.
We've seen that on this surface, it is crucial to open the bowling well. After wasting that opportunity on day one, South Africa were much improved on the third morning with the second new ball. Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi induced 11 false strokes in 7.4 overs today compared with 60 in 90 overs on the first day. With uneven bounce aiding them, they forced an Indian collapse of 7 for 55 in 15.3 overs, against a ball that was only 9.3 overs old when the day started. That should have told them the danger that may face their own line-up, and there's every chance it did, but what could they do about it? Not much, it seems.
"As batters, we've got to front up. We've got to back our defence as much as we can and if he bowls a good ball, kudos to him. The one thing we want to cut out is soft dismissals but if a guy is bowling good balls then kudos to him," Temba Bavuma said.
Once the ball had softened and the pitch had hardened, batting became easier and temporarily, it seemed that Bavuma and Quinton de Kock could dig South Africa out of a hole. Bavuma, in particular, did not look like someone who last played a red-ball match in February. He left well and drove crisply and in the end was also done by a Shami delivery that deserved a wicket. Maybe Bavuma should have decided to play inside the line sooner and could have avoided the outside edge but it would be harsh to call his shot selection poor. In fact, the only South African batter who may be guilty of that is de Kock.
Ultimately, South Africa's is a problem of both quality and experience. In a line-up of six specialists, there are only two - Elgar and de Kock - with some record of consistency and one other - Bavuma - who has shown a regular ability to dig in. Markram's reputation precedes him and his century in Pakistan suggests that he is maturing as a Test player but now, he has to show that at home. Petersen is still finding his feet and it's too early to know whether he has what it takes for a long career in whites and even van der Dussen, who seems to have been around forever, only has 10 Test caps to his name.
It's tiring reading this (and writing it) but this is still very much a team that's rebuilding and it's going to take time. They will probably break more records, but not in a good way, and find themselves in difficult positions and lose more matches.
It will sting that this is the among the worst positions South Africa have found themselves in at a place where they seldom lose. But SuperSport Park has also changed a little. It was unexpectedly flat on the first day and then there was significant variable bounce and movement. "On the first day, the wicket was on the slower side. There was more grass on the wicket so the movement wasn't as exaggerated. Today, where the wicket had a lot of sun, the movement was a bit challenging," Bavuma confirmed.
Dale Steyn, who knows this venue better than most, expects that after the up and down, the pitch will take turn, which probably isn't what South Africa want to hear given that they will end up batting last. But Bavuma has called on the batters to dig deep, even if it's in defeat and know that more time in the middle and more matches will eventually make them better. "As batters we are going to have to knuckle down and make it super hard for the Indian bowlers. I don't want to be accused of making excuses but one of the factors is the lack of match intensity. There's only so much training you can do. I saw a stat that said we have played 13 Tests over three years and England have played 13 this year. As players there's nothing we can do and that's no excuse."
And he made a comparison to England. It's that bad.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent