The Proteas need Hashim Amla to fire as a leader and batsman if they are to win the next two Tests in India.
The momentum is with India in this Test series. They were the better side in Mohali, and the better side in Bengaluru before the rain came and killed the contest. If India continue in this vein, they will clinch the four-game rubber and hand South Africa their first away series defeat in nine years.
The pressure is on the Proteas to produce something special. They need to win in Nagpur to keep their slim hopes of winning the series alive. They need to win in Nagpur and Delhi to claim South Africa’s first Test series victory in India since 2000.
It would mark the Proteas’ second triumph in India. It would also mark the second time they have won two Tests in a series played in this part of the world.
The opportunity to do so remains. And yet, one wonders if the Proteas have the personnel to stage a comeback that will see them emerging 2-1 winners.
The match in Nagpur represents a massive challenge for this group. They may hold the No-1 ranking, but they are a very different outfit to the one that counted Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis among its leaders in 2014. The new order will be judged by how they respond in Nagpur, and ultimately how they come through this series in India.
This is without doubt the biggest challenge Hashim Amla has faced since replacing Smith as Proteas captain in mid-2014. Amla was impressive in his first series as skipper, guiding South Africa to a 1-0 win in Sri Lanka. The Proteas went on to beat Zimbabwe in a one-off Test, thumped West Indies 2-0 at home, and then drew a rain-affected series in Bangladesh. However, the series against India and England were always going to demand more of Amla, as well as the Proteas’ brains trust as a collective.
The Proteas failed to adapt to difficult conditions in Mohali. Their aggressive batting approach hasn’t paid off when you consider the disappointing totals of 184, 109, and 214 across the three innings. The top six have contributed just 374 runs in this series. The bottom five have been poor, but what should concern Russell Domingo and company is that so few batsmen up the order have coped with the Indian spinners or occupied the crease for long periods.
This has in turn placed Amla and the South African bowlers under pressure. Leg-spinner Imran Tahir was identified as the key man for South Africa in the buildup to this tour. However, with the Proteas defending small totals, Tahir has been used sparingly by Amla.
Some have described Vernon Philander’s series-ending injury as blessing in disguise. I’m not sure about that. The Proteas will need all the experience and mettle they can muster for the fight in Nagpur and Delhi. The absence of both Dale Steyn and Philander will leave them light in both departments. Morne Morkel is not a natural leader, while Kagiso Rabada and Kyle Abbott only have six Test caps between them. While the spinners need to fire in the next two games, the seamers will have an important supporting role to play.
Amla’s form with the bat has been a talking point following a couple of disappointing dismissals in this series. Amla has averaged 55.09 since taking on the captaincy in July 2014, which is better than his overall average of 51.06. However, the conditions in India have been very different and the quality of the bowling – spin bowling in particular – has been superior to anything experienced over the past 17 months. This series has reached the stage where it is do or die for the Proteas, and Amla needs to lead by example if the Proteas are to amass substantial totals that will transfer the pressure back on to India.
The loss suffered by the Proteas in Mohali was the first under Amla’s leadership. Unless South Africa and the captain himself can produce something special in Nagpur, they may very well suffer a second and ultimately their first away series defeat since 2006.