South Africa’s attack has seldom felt as much strain as they do on their current tour of India, despite the focus of their failures falling squarely on the batting. The top-order’s inability to bed in, the extra burden placed on the middle order and the lower-order rescue acts – that have only rubbed salt in the specialist batsmen’s wounds – have all been analysed in the aftermath of the defeats at Visakhapatnam and Pune. So some attention ahead of the final Test in Ranchi will turn to the bowlers, who acknowledge they have also found it difficult to find form.
“We’ve been put under immense pressure,” Kagiso Rabada said. “I don’t know if we can be put more pressure than that.”
India piled on totals in excess of 500 and 600 in the first innings of the two Tests, where South Africa were not only unable to control their scoring rate but also failed to bowl them out. In fact, South Africa last took 20 wickets in a Test match nine months and five Tests ago, when they beat Pakistan at home. Since then, South Africa have failed to bowl both Sri Lanka and India out twice each, albeit it in vastly different conditions.
At home against Sri Lanka, where South Africa generally rely on their quicks, they lacked the firepower to remove Sri Lanka’s tail. In India, where South Africa attempted to counter conditions with a more spin-heavy attack, their slower bowlers barely threatened and their fast men have also appeared ineffective, even when conditions have offered some assistance such as on the first morning in Pune.
Rabada, who is South Africa’s leading seamer, only has four wickets from two matches, half that of Mohammed Shami and two fewer than Umesh Yadav. He believes the difference between the two packs has been the home team’s ability to generate some reverse-swing, while South Africa have not found any. “They got the ball to reverse and they bowled well as a collective,” Rabada said. “Their whole attack put pressure on us in every single aspect. Their spinners bowled well and when the ball was reversing their seamers could exploit that. We didn’t really get the ball to reverse and that’s a major weapon of ours.”
That’s not the only reason for South Africa’s lack of success. Often, they have bowled too wide and as Shami showed, attacking the stumps brings reward. More often, they have not found the right length, relying on short balls when pitching it up has proved more successful for India. Overall, South Africa lack the pace and penetration sides of the past have had on the subcontinent with no-one able to emulate Dale Steyn. There is also the issue of inexperience. Rabada, though tasked with being the frontman, is only 24 and it should be Vernon Philander who leads the attack but he has struggled on unhelpful surfaces. Anrich Nortje is on his first tour and Lungi Ngidi, who is in the squad, has not been passed fit enough to play a Test yet.
All that has put South Africa in a difficult position, from which few can see a way out. Rabada is taking the long view and hopes that this is merely a result of one era ending as another has yet to begin. “It’s never nice to lose, especially in the manner we’re losing right now but we’re going through a transition period,” he said. “Our team is fresh and young, so the best thing we can do is look at where we can improve and remember our strengths and build on them.”
The trouble is that for most of Rabada’s career South Africa have been in the same position. He made his Test debut in India by this time four years ago and then South Africa’s best period came in the 2017-18 home summer when they beat Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, India, and Australia at home. But their form has since been patchy as they search for consistency. Rabada hopes something can start in Ranchi, where South Africa will look to put in a better all-round display. “From a physical point of view we need to execute our skills and from a mental point of view, we need to believe we can do it in certain situations,” he said. It’s a balance we’re working on.”