The first Test between South Africa and India at Newlands was, for some people, a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s. Not because the cricket was old-fashioned, but because of South Africa’s bowling attack that featured the foursome of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel. Their relentlessness against India’s batsmen, their quality and their pace brought to mind the Windies pace attacks of yore. Michael Holding, one of the key members of that attack who is commentating for the present series, however, felt there were crucial differences between the two. Holding took time off to chat with Wisden India about what made for a good Test match, the advisability of Hardik Pandya’s counter-attack on day two, Steyn’s injury and more. Excerpts:
As a Test cricket lover, how great was it to watch the last two days?
It’s always good to see two good teams playing against each other. That is what Test cricket needs, competitive teams playing good cricket, entertaining cricket, gripping cricket. People who turned up on day one and day two would have been very satisfied with what they got. No one could complain about not getting value for money, because that was really good, gripping cricket.
Did the South African pace quartet remind you of your playing days?
Not really. That was a different quartet. We didn’t have a Vernon Philander – we didn’t have someone who was so dynamic on grassy pitches. And most of our guys were about pace than anything else. Yes, we had people like Malcolm Marshall and Andy Roberts, who would move the ball around. But they would move the ball around at great pace. What we saw yesterday with somebody chipping down the wicket to Vernon Philander, we wouldn’t have had that in our quartet.
What did you make of the method Hardik Pandya adopted against them?
Well, he had the license to do that. I don’t think anyone batting in the first four would have thought that they could venture to do what he did. When you are batting at the number at which he bats, you can do things like that, because you pretty much have a license to do things like that. And that is what the innings needed: they needed someone to be as aggressive as he possibly could and try and take the attack to the bowlers. You saw what AB de Villiers did when he got out there. I don’t think Pandya has his kind of ability, but at least he tried to be more positive and it worked.
How does a batsman play his way out of trouble when confronted with such a quartet?
It depends on the pitch. The pitch that they batted on was very, very difficult. South Africa should have bowled (first), in my opinion. I don’t think India would have made 200 if South Africa had bowled first. And when you’re batting on pitches like that, as top-order batsmen you have to rely on luck at times. That was a pitch that was totally in favour of the bowlers. So you need a little bit of luck. You can’t go out there as a top-order batsman and throw the bat around like a madman, because that is not what is expected of you. You rely on your technique, and you hope that your technique will get you through. And you hope along with your technique you get a little bit of luck and things become easier later on.
Can you recollect such instances from your playing days, when a batsman gutsed it out against the Windies quartet?
Lots of batsmen gutsed it out against us. A lot of them had good techniques and they managed to get good scores. But you won’t find top-order batsmen trying to do what Pandya did. Hardly ever will you see that. I remember Greg Chappell struggling against us in Australia in 1981, he kept on getting low scores. And a journalist went up to him and said, ‘Have you ever thought about just going out and throwing the bat at the ball to see if it works?’ And Greg Chappell – in my opinion – gave the correct answer. He said, ‘No. That is not what my training is. My training is to rely on my technique and hope to get a start and then to build my innings. Not to go like a madman and throw the bat at the ball.’
There have been some suggestions that Rabada reminds people of you when you were young. Do you see anything of yourself in him?
No, Rabada is Rabada. We run up differently, our bowling actions are different. The only similarity is we are both black!
I don’t want to compare Rabada to anyone. He is a good, young fast bowler. He’s developing as time has gone, and he’s getting better and getting stronger – which is important as a fast bowler. And hopefully he will keep on developing because he’s a very good fast bowler who I think has a bright future ahead of him.
On the Steyn injury – as a fast bowler, you can empathise with what he must have gone through. Out for more than a year, working hard to come back, and then being sidelined by a freak injury…
Yeah, it’s difficult. It’s very heart-breaking you know, because he must have done a lot of work. But this is a lesser injury to the one that he had before. When you injure your shoulder, that is a serious injury as a fast bowler. And for him to work as hard as he did and to come back into the game, I think he will be back again. I’m looking forward to seeing him against Australia.
How would you compare the two pace attacks – South Africa and Australia?
I think South Africa’s pace attack is better. Any attack that has four fast bowler with them complementing each other – not that they are similar. Because I’ve seen people try to use three or four fast bowlers in the past, and they are all the same. This is totally different. Each one of these fast bowlers is different, they offer different things to their captain and ask different questions of the batsmen.
Are you happy with a pitch that has something extra for the bowlers?
I think the first day had a bit too much for the bowlers. I think it was too lopsided for the bowlers. It’s difficult to be an opening batsman against good bowlers on that pitch. That’s why I think if South Africa had bowled, India would not have made 150. And India have some good players, not that their batting is weak. But on that pitch against that bowling attack – it was too much in favour of the bowlers.
What makes a good Test match?
Two competitive teams. That is what makes a good Test match. We have seen a lot of lopsided Test cricket in recent times and that doesn’t make a good Test.