Faf du Plessis said at the start of India’s three-Test series against South Africa that there was “a score to settle” for the defeat the South Africans had suffered when touring in 2015-16, with a 3-0 result in the Tests. The form of that score settling, it is pretty clear now, will revolve around pacy pitches for the Indians with the template being set in Newlands at Cape Town.
Ottis Gibson has further indicated that South Africa will want to go into every Test of their home summer with four fast bowlers, and with the remaining two Tests in the India series scheduled in Centurion and Johannesburg, both in the Highveld region that is traditionally more favourable to seam bowlers than the more flat-ground Cape Town, it’s going to be one long examination by pace.
Even though Dale Steyn won’t be taking part in the series, South Africa’s pace stocks are still rich and varied enough to pose problems to batsmen – though India showed at Newlands that their pacers could be just as effective once they had got the hang of local conditions. For the batsmen though, it demands a specific set of skill sets.
Kepler Wessels, the former South Africa captain, identified the key areas the visiting batsmen would have to focus on to not just survive, but thrive.
“Well your mindset is going to be that you have to be physically very brave,” he told Wisden India during the first Test. “So you’re not going to mind if you get hit because that’s part of the job. Secondly, you’ve got to look to score against them. You can’t just play a survival game. You’ve got to defend well, yes but you also got to attack whenever you possibly can.
“What you have to do is assess what they are going to bring to the game and technically prepare for each one. If you know (Morne) Morkel is going to bowl short, you have to practice letting the hands drop, leaving the ball well, watching carefully for the short ball. Somebody like Steyn and (Vernon) Philander, you know you are going to play on the front foot a lot, you got to leave well, you have to play late.”
Wessels, a gutsy player of fast bowling himself, offered pointers on scoring opportunities against South Africa’s frontline quicks too. “Against Morkel you’ll be looking to score off the cut shot on the backfoot,” he said. “Steyn, he doesn’t give you much to hit, so you’re going to be looking to leave well, make him bowl straight at you and then score through the legside. Probably the same with Philander. (Kagiso) Rabada will bowl a few short balls as well, so you’ll be looking for the cut shot again. That’s how you have to assess the options.”
But while looking to be positive was one of Wessels’s tenets, something that Virat Kohli had also stressed after the 72-run defeat in the first Test, Wessels was not dismissive of the method that someone like Cheteshwar Pujara adopted in Newlands, focussing on batting long first, while also giving points to Hardik Pandya, who took the attack to the bowlers during his first-innings 93.
“I think Pujara plays that way. Everybody has his own way of playing,” held Wessels. “So he is technically correct and he is patient. You need a guy like that in your line-up. If you’ve got some flamboyant guys at the other end, then you need a one or two of those guys. But I think going forward, they’ll probably look to run more aggressively between the wickets, look to maximise the bad delivery a little but more and look to maybe not just survive but score as well. Not quite to the extent of Hardik Pandya but with that thinking process.”
Wessels, a double international having played for Australia and then coming back to South Africa after their re-admittance to international cricket, also acknowledged the hurt of the country still being without a World Cup trophy, despite having had an abundance of talented players. “I think the one disappointment has been that South Africa haven’t won a World Cup,” he admitted. “If you look at the Test arena, they’ve been No.1 in the world many times, so as far as Test cricket is concerned there’s no problem. They’ve done brilliantly. But yes that’s a disappointment, that South African haven’t won a World Cup.”
He disagreed though, that Australia’s method of aggressive cricket would have served the South Africans better. “I don’t think we should have tried to be more like Australia,” he said. “Every country is different, every culture is different and you’ve got to try and make the best of what you have. I certainly think in the past South Africa have been good enough to win World Cups and they will be again in the future. And at some point it will happen.”
Wessels was the captain of the team in the 1992 World Cup where they reached the semifinals against England. What could have been a thrilling last couple of overs turned farcical because South Africa’s target of 22 from 13 balls was reduced to 21 off one ball due to prevailing rain rules. It’s made Wessels one of the earliest supporters of the Duckworth-Lewis system.
“It was a big disappointment for us,” he said recalling the 1992 semifinal. “I’m not saying we would have won the match, but we had a chance to. And unfortunately the rain came at the wrong time. That wasn’t one of the times that people talk about South Africa choking – that was just rain. We would have liked the game to go to its full conclusion rather than the rain deciding it, and who knows what would have happened? In fact if the Duckworth-Lewis system was there then we would have won by three runs!”
The D/L method was introduced in the 1999 World Cup, which brought an even bigger heartbreak for South Africa, with a tie in the semifinal pushing Australia through at Edgbaston in what is still regarded as the greatest One-Day International in history. “Fortunately I wasn’t part of that one, I had retired by then,” smiled Wessels. “South Africa then had such a good team. Probably if you look back on it, as far as World Cup disappointments are concerned, that was the biggest one. Definitely. The match was there for the taking, unfortunately it didn’t happen. That’s the biggest disappointment.”