Bullish Proteas have reopened wounds

Faf du Plessis (Gallo Images)
Faf du Plessis (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – Nerve-jangling moments aplenty … but South Africa took a genuinely massive stride at Newlands toward Test series conquest of rankings-topping India.

On just another of those crazy, see-sawing days of modern Test cricket at this quirky venue on Monday, the Proteas’ 72-run victory on day four – though the game itself required less than three – means the tourists will have to enter uncharted waters if they are to earn that elusive maiden series triumph on our soil.

It will require successive wins – no comfort, either, that both will need to be on the Highveld, starting at SuperSport Park on Saturday – for Virat Kohli to lift the Freedom Series trophy instead of counterpart Faf du Plessis.

India have never yet won back-to-back Tests in South Africa: they have only clinched two in total, one in 2006/07 (Wanderers) and another in 2010/11 (Kingsmead).

So there’s a good case for suggesting already the current series would have been immeasurably more interesting for neutrals from here had the Indians actually reached the Newlands victory target of 208 which Kohli admitted later “felt chaseable”.

Clean sweep for South Africa, even? Considering the remaining rostering of Centurion and then the “Bullring”, you might not want to bet too heavily against it, even if that hasn’t yet been done against these foes here.

Possibly influenced by new head coach Ottis Gibson – though let’s be wary of not giving various senior players due credit, either – the Proteas adopted a particularly bullish, progressive approach to the first Test, and simply need to say “look at the scoreboard” for justification of their team composition, Faf du Plessis’s hardly risk-free decision at the toss, and the style of cricket they played.

Probably the key hallmark of a generally low-scoring Test was that India, fattened by a generous volley of recent series successes on Subcontinent pitches or ones not unlike them, only continued to reveal their soft batting underbelly, really, on faster, bouncier and more seaming surfaces.

That may be just one really good reason for the Proteas to opt again for a four-strong pace attack – albeit definitely without Dale Steyn – at Centurion.

They hardly lack sound alternative options in that department (Lungi Ngidi and Duanne Olivier have bolstered the second-Test squad) so the status quo is a strong possibility, given how well the quartet dovetailed, at least while Steyn was still contributing, at Newlands.

Then again, the way the stellar Vernon Philander – “Mr Newlands”, as former SA bowling coach Vincent Barnes later branded him on Twitter – and also Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel went about the second-innings task only served as a reminder that three quicks can also be contemplated as enough.

At the post-match press conference, the visibly chuffed Du Plessis unsurprisingly kept all options open, suggesting that a return to seven batsmen was a possibility, as well as installation of another bowling all-rounder (Chris Morris or Andile Phehlukwayo).

He didn’t say as much, but just another option could be to leave out the specialist spinner, Keshav Maharaj.

The left-armer only bowled 10 overs throughout the Newlands Test, although he was unlucky not to pick up a wicket or two and made successive, spirited tail-end contributions with the bat.

But the Proteas have powerfully won all of their last three Tests at SuperSport Park in a row (New Zealand, England and West Indies) and in each instance spin has been a very limited factor indeed.

Going four pacemen and seven batsmen would naturally re-open the door to Temba Bavuma.

There were plenty of skittish moments for the SA batting as well during the Newlands Test, and each time they were at the crease there was some reason to rue the absence of the pint-sized middle-order man’s scrapping, technically correct qualities.

Still, I would suggest that the critical factor in the Proteas’ Capetonian triumph – interestingly, both captains praised the challenging but compelling pitch – was how the supposed cream of India’s batting was undone both times in the otherwise reasonably tight contest for generous periods.

India were 92 for seven in their first innings until the Hardik Pandya-inspired doubling (and a bit more) of the score, and again 82 for seven the second time around; this time their off-spinner, Ravichandran Ashwin, helped wipe just a bit of the egg off their faces with a resilient, top-scoring innings of 37.

Do certain historical trends really just stay much the same, perhaps?

Expect SA head coach Ottis Gibson and his assistants to have scribbled a wee note on that score …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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