Can India pass South Africa’s pace test?

In the two series between the sides in India since 2008, Dale Steyn has led South Africa’s bowling charts. The onset of winter, especially in northern India, will help the pitch retain moisture, which will encourage Steyn and Co. to unsettle India when they play in the first and fourth Tests in Mohali and Delhi, respectively.

Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel have been very successful in sub-continental conditions.   -  PTI

The signs of a great side lie in their ability to break new paths. Despite struggling to cultivate a world-class spinner who can run through sides, South Africa have found ways to counter and conquer alien pitch conditions meant to discourage them. They have not lost an overseas Test series — including in Asia, known to assist spin bowling — after July, 2006. On the contrary, they have suffered two series losses at home in the last six years, both to Australia. The one perennial strength they have possessed in this period is Dale Steyn, the leading paceman in the world in terms of mastery in Asia: he has taken 90 wickets at an average of 22.33, and a strike-rate of 39.7. Be it Nagpur, Galle, Karachi or Colombo, his imprint has been lasting.

In only five matches in India, he has scripted two of his most remarkable performances. He took 7 for 51 in Nagpur in 2010, in an exhibition of reverse-swing that duped India to their third innings defeat in 10 years at home (all courtesy South Africa). Another of those three defeats was facilitated by Steyn; a five-wicket haul as India disintegrated for 76 in Ahmedabad, an impact from which they could not recover.

If these signs are not worrying enough for India for the upcoming Test series, Steyn’s deputy Morne Morkel has also shown promise in conditions typical of India and the subcontinent. Last year, South Africa regained their No. 1 spot in Tests — after a blip — owing to a combined effort from the two in Sri Lanka. While Steyn took 13 wickets and Morkel one less, Morkel’s scalps were taken at a better average and strike-rate. In spin-friendly conditions in Galle and Colombo, evidenced by spinners Rangana Herath and Dilruwan Perera taking 28 wickets in the series, the fast duo claimed 25.

The South African pace unit will also likely have the services of a third seamer, in either Vernon Philander or Kagiso Rabada. Philander, otherwise a possessor of impressive credentials, has yet to thrive in Asia, and has yet to play in India.

Newcomer Rabada will have the confidence of a consistent showing in the One-Day International (ODI) leg of the ongoing tour. The 20-year old finished as the top wicket-taker in the series alongside Steyn (10), but at a better average and economy rate. The Tests will be a different beast to tackle, but the selectors might just give him a go for the promise he has shown.

Their primary spinner Imran Tahir, however, has not shown much promise in the longer format. His only outing of note was in Dubai two years ago, an eight-wicket match haul that helped his team gain an innings victory against Pakistan. His two Tests in the subcontinent, against Sri Lanka, have yielded only four wickets. India’s batsmen may find him easier to negotiate, but he may not be required to do much. South Africa have tried utilising the services of left-arm spinner Robin Peterson and Tahir in phases in the last few years, but their showing has been indifferent. For security, there are two other spinners in the squad, Simon Harmer and Dane Piedt, both of whom have impressed in the limited opportunities they have been given so far.

For South Africa, the only spinner who has thrived in India has been Paul Adams. In 1996-97, he took 14 wickets at 20.28 to finish as the second-highest wicket-taker in the series behind Javagal Srinath. His efforts, however, were not enough to prevent a series loss. Moreover, fast bowlers aided their only Test win of that tour: in the 329-run victory at the Eden Gardens, Lance Klusener took eight wickets in an innings, and spin accounted for only three wickets to fall.

The major bowling efforts that gave South Africa wins in India were of their fast bowlers. Besides a five-wicket haul from spinner Nicky Boje, the 2-0 thrashing they handed India in 1999-2000 was generated by Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock. An ineffective showing by Pollock and Makhaya Ntini resulted in a series loss in India in 2004, before Steyn arrived in their midst.

In the two series between the sides in India since 2008, Steyn has led South Africa’s bowling charts.

The onset of winter , especially in northern India, will help the pitch retain moisture, which will encourage Steyn and Co. to unsettle India when they play in the first and fourth Tests in Mohali and Delhi, respectively. If India are put in to bat in any of those matches, there is the danger of the team folding up quickly, thereby conceding an early advantage.

South Africa will have fond memories of the other two venues, Nagpur and Bangalore, where two of their three innings wins in the country came. Twenty-seven of the 40 Indian wickets to fall in these games went to pacemen, signalling what is likely to occur in the remainder of the tour.

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