Five lessons from South Africa’s 108-run loss to India in the first Test in Mohali.
There are still doubts over Tahir
There still seems to be a lack of trust in Imran Tahir’s abilities as a Test spinner. He bowled only 1o overs in India’s first innings and it took Hashim Amla a hour and 15 minutes to bring on Tahir in the second innings, after which he took four wickets. The pitch in Mohali, while not a big turner, was clearly tailor made for spin bowling. South Africa desperately needed wickets on the third morning as India looked to build a considerable lead yet Tahir, an attacking spinner by nature and the best bet for wickets, was only introduced after more than an hour. The theory at the time was that Amla was reluctant to let him bowl to Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, meaning South Africa don’t feel comfortable unleashing him against India’s top order. The spinner is at fault too, still struggling for consistency but match figures of 6-71 in 26.3 overs is reason for optimism.
Mental vs physical
While the conditions in Mohali was physically challenging, South Africa lost the mental battle in dealing with those challenges. We know now that they should have applied themselves better and making the mistake of playing the conditions, rather than what’s in front of you, should not be repeated. AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis are the best players of spin in the team. They will have to show that in the remaining three Tests. De Villiers and Amla were the only batsmen in the first Test with previous playing experience in India so the rest of the batting order will look to them to lead from the front and deal with anything India throws at them.
There will be changes for the second Test
The stitches in JP Duminy’s hand has been removed and he will have a net session in the next couple of days and should be available for selection for the second Test in Bengaluru. Morne Morkel has fully recovered from the right quad strain and should come back into the team, but Dale Steyn remains a fitness concern. He is still recovering from the groin strain he sustained during the first game. He will have a fitness test two days before the second Test before a final call on his availability is made. While South Africa didn’t really miss Duminy’s bowling abilities, they did miss an extra batsman and his return means South Africa will likely opt for only one specialist spinner in the XI, especially if Steyn and Morkel are available for selection.
Don’t change the batting order
Vernon Philander opened the batting in the second innings with Dean Elgar, but the move failed as he lasted only two balls. Plans like that have rarely come off for South Africa in the past, especially when India are not afraid to open the bowling with spinners from both ends. Stiaan van Zyl should be backed as an opener on this tour, while Dane Vilas is probably not equipped to bat at No 6 at this level. Duminy’s expected return will move him down to No 7, which will automatically restore some balance to the batting line-up and the team as a whole.
Home ground advantage
India were heavily criticised by South African fans on social media for producing a wicket that failed to sustain Test cricket for five days, and for playing like a day four pitch on day two. While most pundits were in agreement that it wasn’t a good Test wicket, word from the South African camp was that they expected it and would have done the same had the roles been reversed. Let’s not pretend that Tests in South Africa always go beyond three days. The Proteas beat Australia inside three days at Newlands in 2011 (Vernon Philander’s debut Test) after being bowled out for 96 and then dismissing the Aussies for 47 as just one example. Let’s not forget that India were, and still are, under massive pressure to win the Test series. After losing the T20 and ODI series they were desperate to play on a surface that would suit their spinners and play to their strengths. It was a risk because their batsmen also struggled, but Virat Kohli won the toss and it paid off. Has anyone thought that maybe it was a good thing? South Africa are unlikely to play again on a pitch as bad as the one in Mohali. They’ve face tough conditions first up and failed, so they can only get better going forward with the right mental attitude.