Proteas fire opening salvo

Pat Symcox (File)
Pat Symcox (File)

South Africa are in the driving seat against India in the first Test in Mohali with the visitors bowling the hosts out for 201 in the first Test.

However, Test cricket in the subcontinent is hard work. It challenges you both mentally and physically. Owing to at times excessive heat, intense concentration is required. Half-chances become critical and generally the team that capitalises on them ends up victorious. This four-match Test series will prove no different.

South Africa have entered the Test series with the momentum in their back pocket after winning both the T20 and ODI series.

However, in the long run will the Proteas have the right balance in their Test side to go all the way and make it a clean sweep? While only time will tell, the current pressure on the home team and its management is immense. There is simply no escaping that fact, and no amount of ducking the issue in the media will suffice.

The Indians are in a tight corner. Between captain Virat Kohli and team director Ravi Shastri they will know that somehow they have to play to their strengths and have to channel every aspect correctly.

This includes the pitches in every venue and the groundsman for the first Test will know that his job is on the line if he doesn’t deliver what is expected of him.

The Proteas’ strength lies in the likes of AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis from a batting perspective and in Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel on the bowling front.

It is now a question of whether India manage to negate those strengths. My belief is that the home side will go back to the tried-and-tested formula of spin, spin and more spin. To be blunt, their fast men are pop-guns. Nothing about them scares even my local ski-boat club team.

A low and slow pitch will force the Proteas to tone down the short delivery early on and work really hard on getting reverse swing as quickly as possible.

The real pressure point is the spin aspect. Simon Harmer keeps it tight enough and spins it, but Dean Elgar has been the star of the show for the Proteas thus far, with four wickets to his name in the first Test.

Meanwhile, 36-year-old Imran Tahir is a wicket-taker, but leaks runs in Test cricket. He needs men around the bat, but has to protect boundaries too which makes it a tough task.

The Indian batting line-up is full of talent. However, they have not fired. Kohli was dismissed for one, but you have to believe he cannot keep registering low scores.

In contrast, De Villiers has been in sublime form when wielding the willow and has seen runs flow freely each time he strides to the crease.

India need to create a situation whereby they make De Villiers work hard for every run. Amla has not enjoyed dominant form to date and the home side wouldn’t want him to get off two a quick start in South Africa’s first innings. The key is to make the pitch slow and low and force the right-hander to play across his front pad as much as possible early on in his innings.

Du Plessis possesses the ability to bat for long periods of time, but won’t take the game away in a session or two if the run-rate is slow.

South Africa’s middle order is gifted, but equally inexperienced. The key for India is to get a few catchers around the bat, create pressure with plenty of appeals and then anything can happen.

India is one destination where a sudden rush of blood or a false stroke can bring about two or three wickets in quick succession. A session can change in the blink of an eye

South Africa’s tail hasn’t enjoyed much batting in recent times and like to feel bat on ball. Slowing it down is what I’d be doing. Running singles is not part of a fast bowler’s make-up.

Challenge them to go over the top on a pitch that is turning and the odds favour the bowler.

On the bowling front, South Africa boast a speedster in Dale Steyn, while they have opted for the youth of Kagiso Rabada and the experience of Vernon Philander, who has taken the wicket of Shikhar Dhawan. Philander can bat a bit, which will take the pressure off the tail.

The umpiring in this series will prove critical because the DRS system is not in play.

As a player, you have to be mentally prepared to accept the unexpected and not let it influence your state of mind. I’m hoping that it doesn’t become a focal point over the next few weeks.

Former South Africa international Pat Symcox played 20 Tests, took 37 wickets and scored 741 runs. He is a self-proclaimed cricket fanatic, struggling golfer and addicted writer.

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