Will Proteas be ready for Indian ‘platteland’?

Ottis Gibson (Gallo Images)
Ottis Gibson (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - The Ashes series is underway, marking the start of it ... and South Africa are now almost precisely two months away from opening their own account in the first edition of the ICC World Test Championship.

They have a stinker of a series to begin with, of course: India away is about as demanding as it gets, especially considering their horrors in the last bilateral combat there in 2015/16.

But on October 2, they will have to do all they can to hit the ground running - always difficult, coming right at the start of the season in their own neck of the woods - at the relative mouthful that is the Dr YS Rajasekhara Reddy ACA-VDCA Cricket Stadium in Visakhapatnam.

Some of their players will be at least moderately primed to the broad Indian landscape through presence in the three-match Twenty20 international series preceding it; others less fortunate.

But the very shape of the roster for the three Tests is enough - or at least should be - to remind Cricket South Africa’s bosses of the importance of settling as soon as possible the coaching team, plus hopefully confirming Faf du Plessis as ongoing captain, for Proteas requirements in the short- to medium-term future.

The grapevine from Johannesburg is suggesting that the CSA board are fairly split over the future of head coach Ottis Gibson, following South Africa’s desperately disappointing showing at the major focus of his tenure thus far, the 2019 World Cup in the UK.

Others beneath him like batting specialist Dale Benkenstein and fielding coach Justin Ontong may also be skating on thin ice.

But whichever way the wind eventually blows on that front, the Proteas need to start planning fast and especially diligently for this year’s Indian Test mission, its importance heightened by the link to the inaugural Test Championship.

That is because they have largely been sent to what might best be described as the Indian version of the “platteland” rather than playing the Tests in more established, major metropolises like Kolkata, Mumbai or New Delhi.

The Proteas have never previously played either a Test or one-day international in the three centres earmarked for the five-dayers: Visakhapatnam, Ranchi (JSCA International Stadium Complex) and Pune (Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium) in that order.

Indeed, all three grounds have only hosted one prior Test match each, two of them featuring Australia, and one England.

It may seem to the touring Proteas just a little like South Africa staging Tests in smaller - though it is all relative - less fashionable centres like Paarl, Benoni and Maritzburg.

Visakhapatnam is listed as only the 14th biggest Indian city, Ranchi the 46th and Pune the 19th, so we are not really talking brightest lights in several senses, however appealing aesthetically some may prove to be (the first-named centre, for example, is promisingly branded India’s “jewel of the east coast”).

While playing at such unfamiliar grounds may have some blessings for certain Proteas players scarred to varying degrees by difficult experiences elsewhere in India in the 2015/16 series or even before, limited knowledge of what to expect in pitch and other localised terms can also be hazardous in its own way.

The skimpy Test history in each case doesn’t help from a preparatory point of view for the South Africans.

Visakhapatnam’s lone Test thus far featured a 246-run triumph by the host nation over England in 2016, powered largely by captain Virat Kohli’s respective knocks of 167 and 81.

At Ranchi, meanwhile, the only Test was a high-scoring stalemate between India and Australia in 2017, when there were big first-innings runs from each of Steve Smith (178) and Cheteshwar Pujara (202).

Pune’s maiden experience of a Test saw the Aussies, in the same series, prevail by 333 runs: the visitors’ veteran left-arm spinner Steve O’Keefe shone (in the debatably prodigious-turning conditions, something to possibly send a shiver down SA spines) with identical innings hauls of 6/35 and 6/35.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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