CricViz Analysis: How Can South Africa Compete in India?

Ben Jones looks at the potential opportunities for the Proteas.

India’s home record is terrifying for visiting teams. Of the last 30 Test matches they have played in India, they have lost just one; of their last 50, they have lost just four. Home conditions as clearly defined as India’s (high-scoring and flat, slowly breaking up over four-to-five days) have allowed the coaching staff and captain to prepare the side with specific plans and roles. The only home Test Kohli has lost – against Australia in Gahunje – was when the surface was radically different from what had been expected. Just 4.3% of India’s home Tests under Kohli have ended in defeat, making India the most impenetrable Test nation in world cricket.

So how can South Africa compete in this upcoming series?

APPROACH SPIN CORRECTLY

South Africa have issues playing spin that are long-running, technical, and deeply set. In the last decade, only Zimbabwean batsmen have a lower batting average against spin in Asia than South Africans do. As a batsman, the most dangerous place to intercept spin bowling is between 2m and 3m from your stumps. It’s the classic situation of not having gone neither forward nor back, the “danger-zone” where you lose a significant amount of control, and are playing with too much risk. Deliveries intercepted in that zone average far, far less than deliveries intercepted elsewhere.

And so, a fundamental part of playing spin well is not intercepting deliveries in that zone, i.e. getting fully forward for fully back. The best players of spin almost never get caught in that zone, and the best teams are naturally disinclined to avoid it. And of course, the opposite is also true. Since South Africa last went to India in 2015, no side in the world has played in the “danger-zone” more regularly.

It’s too late, in reality, for a coach to set about trying to change that approach, structurally, across the team as a whole. However, it’s not too late for individuals to try and engage with the issue, and take responsibility – even something as straightforward as a conscious disinclination to get right forward or right back could make a huge difference.

KEEP DE KOCK AT NO.7

Since the start of 2017, Quinton de Kock averages 34.26 with the bat, and has made two centuries. For a batsman of his undoubted ability, that’s not really good enough, but coming in at No.7 it’s felt like reasonable returns, with those runs coming rather swiftly as well. Yet every now and then, South Africa see fit to promote De Kock up the order to try and get more out of him – with mediocre results.

The reason for this is his poor defensive technique. Over the last few years, he’s dismissed every 34 times he plays a defensive stroke, just over half of the average of 65 for all top six batsman. De Kock’s defensive game is not good, and compares unfavourably to almost every batsman in Test cricket. Since the start of 2017, there have been 60 Test batsman to have played at least 400 defensive shots, and only two of them lead to wickets more often than De Kock’s.

So, whilst his returns at No.6 in the series against Sri Lanka (80, 55, 86, 1) were impressive, South Africa’s staff have to put De Kock in the position where his poor defensive game is least likely to be relief upon. Get him down that order, and leave him there – even if he dominates.

TRUST ELGAR’S BOWLING

One of the trickier issues of selection that teams face when they go to Asia is how to get enough spinners into the side. The natural balance of most attacks outside of the sub-continent (three frontline seamers, a spinner, an all-rounder who typically bowls pace) is not easily adapted to Asian pitches, either demanding too much of the fourth (now third) seamer, or leaving their batting order too shallow.

Yet in this respect, South Africa are slightly lucky. Whilst that quandary still applies, the left-arm spin of Dean Elgar does rather soften things. Elgar may have only taken 14 Test wickets, but his bowling average of 44.50 in this format is more than acceptable given his role as a part-timer. What’s more Elgar’s record is actually underselling the quality of his bowling – his Expected Average (built from ball-tracking data to calculate what we’d “expect” deliveries he’s bowled to average) is 39. Turning the ball away from an Indian batting line-up dominated by right-handers, he could be a key weapon; South Africa need to trust in the quality of Elgar’s bowling and have him – and Theunis de Bruyn – as a combined fifth bowler.

TARGET THE STUMPS…BUT DON’T SWEAT ON LENGTH

Visiting India as a seamer has been one of the toughest assignments a Test spinner can receive in the modern era, comfortably alongside being an opening batsman in England or a finger spinner in Australia. In the last decade, only three visiting seamers have taken 10+ wickets in a Test series in India: Dale Steyn in 2010, James Anderson in 2012, and Trent Boult in 2016. Competence, as a touring pace bowler, is tough; excellence is all but impossible.

As such, plenty of bowlers have tried to adapt their approach, the approach which has taken them as far as it possibly can in the red ball game, for the specific challenges of cricket in Asia. Generally, it focuses on a particular idea, that the only way to take wickets on slower, lower surfaces is to target the stumps. There is some truth in it – seamers in Asia get a higher percentage of their wickets LBW or bowled than anywhere else in the world.

However, bowlers can get a bit too focused on this idea. In the last five years, the average wicket ball for a Test seamer in Asia pitched 7.47m from the batsman’s stumps; in South Africa, that figure is 7.26m. That isn’t incitement to just bowl bouncers on pitches which won’t offer too much help, but rather encouragement that you don’t just need to run up and bowl drive balls every over. Bowl a good length, between 6m and 8m from the stumps, and you’ll take wickets wherever you are.

CricViz Recommended XI:

Markram, Elgar, Faf, Bavuma, Klaasen, De Bruyn, De Kock, Philander, Maharaj, Rabada, Piedt

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All in all, it is going to be a serious challenge for South Africa to lay a glove on India, let alone win a Test. But if they get everything right in their initial set-up, strategy and personnel, then they’re at least working with the wind behind them.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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