What South Africa need: Luck and pluck

Sandip G
Net bowlers take selfies with Rohit Sharma on the sidelines of a practice session in Pune on Wednesday. The second India-SA Test begins here on Thursday. (Express photo by Arul Horizon)

It probably had to do with the timing of the question. After Sri Lanka had run roughshod over South Africa in Galle last year, bundling out the visitors for a meagre 73, South Africa captain Faf du Plessis was queried whether he would be happy if the concept of toss was scrapped, one of ICC’s plans to reduce home advantage for its World Test Championship. Instead, the away skipper could decide whether to bat or bowl first.

“I’m a big fan of taking away the toss. I would have been a happier captain now,” du Plessis gleefully remarked.

It might have been an opinion forged by his own experiences with the toss —on the road, he has lost the toss six times, and was defeated on five of those instances. Conversely, he has called the coin correctly on three occasions, and not coincidentally won all three games, twice in New Zealand and once in England.

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To an extent, Virat Kohli could relate to this predicament on his own overseas sojourns. Of the 10 instances he has lost the toss outside Asia since 2018, he has ended up on the losing side seven times. Two of the three victories came on the recent trip to West Indies, once though famously at Trent Bridge.

Faf du Plessis would love to have his rotten luck with the coin in the subcontinent turn upside down.

Inversely, Kohli’s yet to lose an overseas Test wherein he has won the toss. Of the four times he had won the toss, the Indian skipper went on to win three times, denied a fourth by unrelenting showers in Sydney.

While winning the toss alone is not the most decisive factor in the outcome of a Test, it does have a bearing on the result, especially in the subcontinent. The strips were considerably less devilish compares to some of them Du Plessis had encountered on his previous trip. The Visakhapatnam pitch was no Nagpur clone, but winning the toss still presents the best route to win in the subcontinent for touring sides.

Losing it could be the first psychological blow for the visitors, culminating in the mere thought of batting last, whether on the fourth day or fifth. They begin on the back-foot, intimidated by the proposition to bowl when the surface is at its prime for batting and to bat when the strip is at its worst for batting.

Rarely ever has there been a bowl-first wicket in India this century — perhaps the Nagpur one in 2004 or, more recently, a monsoon-ridden surface in Kolkata last year. But largely, there is neither wicked lateral movement or sharp turn. Fuelling the woes, the visitors — on losing the toss — come up against a group of relentless Indian line-up, which has perfected the art of forensically batting out the opposition. Add the scorching temperatures, and the opposition bowlers are blown away.

Keshav Maharaj had taken 9 for 129 in a Test in Colombo last year but in Visakhapatnam his plans came undone. (AP)

From thereon, the contests assumes a predictable pattern and ends with another morale-crushing defeat. Admitted South Africa’s lead-spinner Keshav Maharaj after labouring on the first day in Vizag, an archetypal first-day subcontinent wicket, where the surface had enough pace for fluid stroke-making, but not enough pace for speedsters to bully batsmen. There was turn, but not enough to examine the Indian batsmen. “The toss does play a role because you want the best conditions for the spinners to bowl in, which we didn’t get,” he said.

But by the time the Indian spinners strode in with a cushion of 502 runs, the strip had begun to take turn, not outrageous snake-pit deviation off the surface, but enough for the highly versatile Ravichandran Ashwin to unfurl his vaunted tricks.

The lofty first-innings total too was vital, as India could set aggressive fields even when the batsmen were looking to take the bowlers on. While Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja could be expected to out-bowl their counterparts even on the first day, the best chance to put India and their spinners under pressure is to win the toss and bat first.

In fact, the few instances under Kohli wherein they had been relatively ineffective came when they had lost the toss and were made to bowl on the first day of a Test match. The series against England and Australia were classic instances.

Barring a first-innings meltdown in Mohali, England piled up competitive first-innings totals — 537 in Rajkot, 400 in Mumbai and 477 in Chennai. Australia conjured 260 (on a Pune dust bowl), 451 in Ranchi and 300 in Dharamshala (where Ajinkya Rahane had captained).

It’s a different story that India still managed to win both the series — it required marathon efforts from their batsmen — but they won only three of the six Tests, lost the one in Pune and sweated to draw the Rajkot match. Contrastingly, Kohli has won all but one of the nine games when he had clinched the toss, the exception being the Sri Lanka match in Delhi the year before.

A slim ray of hope

So while losing the toss can be as good as bracing for an eventuality, winning the toss at least offers a slim ray of hope. With the regimented bowling firm Kohli has at his disposal — even without Jasprit Bumrah, they seem as invulnerable as they’re unrelenting — opposition batsmen can still be blown away, but batting on the first day of a Test match offers the best chance for a non-subcontinental team to put this brilliant team under some pressure.

The sun would be blazing, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami ploughing without much assistance — it’s when the ball gets older that they become dangerous — Ashwin and Jadeja forced to rely on flight and drift than turn off the surface, the surface is at its quickest, the bowlers without the cushion of chunky first-innings totals.

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Of course, it requires a lot of application from the batsmen, but if they do manage to blunt them, the pressure is reversed, desperation kicks in, the close-in cordon disappears, and the surface becomes a promised subcontinental batting paradise.

As significantly, lingers the possibility of making India batting last, which they have rarely done in meaningful contexts. Often, they’re tasked to chase a pittance of runs. But two instances where they were considerably pressured were against England in Rajkot and Australia in Pune. It required the skipper’s defiance (unbeaten 49) in Rajkot, while in Pune they had no answers to the wares of little-known left-arm spinner Steve O’Keefe.

But to push India to bat on the fourth-fifth day, they still had to prise out a substantial lead. It’s where England faltered, as they let India rack up 418, 417, 631 and 759 in those Tests when the hosts batted second. Australia ended up conceding 603 in Ranchi.

In effect, even winning the toss and batting first isn’t guaranteed good news, not even a job half-done premise. They should complement the stroke of fortune with obvious factors of reading the conditions correctly, picking the best condition-specific combination, and playing meticulous cricket. But in the accident of a coin flipped lies the best hope of South Africa spicing up the series, pushing India to the edge of a precipice and halting the ruthless winning machine.

The next best thing for du Plessis after the ICC nipped the toss-scrap idea in the bud.