India v/s South Africa: de Villiers, du Plessis and Amla key to Protean victory

Former South African captain and administrator, Dr Ali Bacher, recently said that the key to South Africa’s success, and failure, are Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amlaand AB de Villiers.

How heavily South Africa depend on the trio reflects in their team’s performance. The three came to India with Test averages in excess of 50. While Amla has managed to retain it in that region despite failures in the three innings this series, du Plessis’s dipped below 50 following scores of 0, 1, 0. Only de Villiers has been among runs, scoring two half-centuries in three outings.

As South Africa coach Russell Domingo has said on more than one occasion in this series, Amla is too good a player to fail repeatedly and that one big knock is not far away. Even Amla knows that. With their openers Dean Elgar and Stiaan van Zyl not providing the desired start, the onus is on the trio to shape the South African fate.

“Nagpur is a different Test and hopefully that’s when it starts,” Amla spoke not only for himself but also for his team. “Opening is quite a demanding position to be in. Dean and Stiaan are our best openers and they will do a great job for us. With respect to myself and Faf, we haven’t got going but we surely have only ourselves to blame,” he said.

Once du Plessis and Amla find form, and with de Villiers firing from all cylinders, Indian bowlers will only have to run for cover. They found it in the limited-overs leg of the Freedom Series prior to the Tests.

Former India opener and selector VB Chandrasekhar said that Indian bowlers, particularly spinners, will hold the key as they have done so far in the series to keep the South African batsmen quiet.

“South Africa are just about coming out of the one-day bubble. They continue to play in the same positive manner, which could push the Indian spinners despite Ravichandran Ashwin bowling well. Ravindra Jadeja can be deadly only on turning tracks. Amit Mishra does not seem to be an automatic choice for a spinner like Ashwin as the team looks to be flexible, choosing horses for courses,” said Chandrasekhar.

It is here that the Indian medium-pacers will come to the fore. On dry surfaces, the batsmen are exposed to reverse swing. A bad day in office for the Indian batsmen will put pressure on the bowlers. This means, you cannot complain that your bowlers have not done the job,” said the former Tamil Nadu and Goa Ranji Trophy captain and hard-hitting opener.

That leads to the question: How prepared are the Indian bowlers should du Plessis and Amla come back to form in Nagpur and support de Villiers at the top?

While de Villiers has used his feet to the spinners in the series, the others have fallen to “soft dismissals” as Domingo said recently. Amla and du Plessis are not bad players of spin bowling either, should Nagpur be a spin-friendly surface. Going by some of the dismissals in the three innings that South Africa batted so far this series, they were done in by the lack of turn as they played for the spin.

Like de Villiers did on the only day when action was possible in the second Test here last Saturday, stepping out to the spinners so as to not allow the ball to do much after pitching, the others will do well to pick a leaf out of the versatile batsman.

If South Africa score 500, India cannot fall far behind. But as has happened in the past on surfaces assisting spin, Indian batsmen have failed miserably. Like Moeen Ali destroyed India in England last year as did Nathan Lyon in Australia last season. With the recent history heavily loaded in favour of South Africa, who have not lost a Test series overseas in nine years, and they are still the No. 1 Test team in the world, the batsmen have equally big responsibility as the bowlers.

South Africa go back to Nagpur, the very venue where they won by an innings and six runs in their previous visit in February 2010 with Amla scoring 253, and South Africa posting 550-plus and bowling India out twice. As has been seen in the past, the visitors have out-batted India in their own backyard.

As Virat Kohli seeks to win his first Test series as captain at home, the road ahead is not going to be smooth.

Chandrasekhar pointed out: “How well can the Indian bowlers continue their good work into the next two Tests will determine India winning and losing. In addition, their batsmen need to come good in the first innings. While Murali Vijay may be taking a long time to score his runs, Shikhar Dhawan is not in great form and Kohli is out of touch. India might bump into the off-spin of JP Duminy just like how Elgar spun them out in the first innings of Mohali Test.”

One of the ways out for India is to bat exceedingly well in the first innings and on the dry surfaces, get the fast bowlers to bowl reverse swing and apply pressure on the Proteas.

The series is very much alive. India could seal it in Nagpur. South Africa could also bounce back by winning the next two.

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