Apart from giving the batsmen a workout ahead of what is likely to be the liveliest pitch of the series, the team management also want to look at both ahead of the challenges that lie ahead. This series loss was India’s first in 10, and just beyond the horizon lie Test tours of England, Australia and New Zealand.
A deeper fast-bowling pool can only be a good thing, but the temptation to look at Saini and Thakur also points to the fact that India still don’t know what their first-choice attack is. Bhuvneshwar Kumar took 6 for 120 in Cape Town, and was then benched for Centurion, where Ishant Sharma came in and took 5 for 86.
Mohammed Shami, despite his struggles with consistency, remains India’s most potent pace bowling threat. If there’s lateral movement as expected in Johannesburg, Bhuvneshwar – the most skillful of the lot – must play. And if comes down to a choice between Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant, the more experienced man wins every time.
Bumrah generates good pace, and can make the most of variable bounce because of his quirky action. But his stock ball is the inswinger to the right-hand batsman. “If your stock ball is the outswinger, you’ll get wickets,” said Michael Holding to this correspondent after the Centurion game. “The ball that comes in isn’t going to get too many quality batsmen out. He needs to develop more skills if he’s to succeed on flat pitches.”
South Africa have got their selection spot on. In Cape Town, they ignored the safe option of playing the extra batsman and went with four pace bowlers, supported by Keshav Maharaj’s left-arm spin. Despite Dale Steyn’s unfortunate heel injury, they still had enough firepower to blast out the Indians on the fourth afternoon.
At Centurion, they again had the option of bringing in an all-rounder — Chris Morris or Andile Phehlukwayo — to fill the Steyn void. Instead, they went for the attacking option and picked Lungi Ngidi, a 21-year-old with some pace to burn. Ngidi’s six for 39 in the second innings scuttled India’s run chase.
The fact that Umesh Yadav has not even come into the discussions is even more puzzling. His 25 wickets in Australia (seven Tests) have cost 44 apiece and come at an economy rate of 4.64. But you only need to look at Stuart Broad’s struggles in Australia this winter to recognize that using performances on increasingly lifeless pitches as a yardstick for selection is not necessarily fair.
Yadav is coming off the best year of his career — 31 wickets at 29.25 — and is a far more complete bowler than the one who toured Australia twice. Against the same opponent on home turf in 2017, he was the most successful pace bowler on either side with 17 wickets. The almost-Asian surface at Centurion would have suited his skiddy methods perfectly.
In bowler-friendly conditions, you simply cannot afford to give the batsmen any respite. This series was decided by two partnerships — the 114 between AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis at Newlands, and the 141 de Villiers added with Dean Elgar in Centurion. For their part, the home bowlers have been, to use a word Kolhi has employed frequently, “relentless.”
“But let’s be clear,” says Holding, even as he says the bowlers should do better. “It’s the batsmen who have cost India the series.” Take out Hardik Pandya’s chancy 93 in Cape Town, and Kohli’s sublime 153 in Centurion, and you are left with an almost-blank slate. Dead-rubber Tests can sometimes be listless affairs. But with some careers potentially on the line ahead of that trip to England in June, this should be every bit as spicy as the jalapeño-green pitch being prepared.