Weary SA look for ways to bounce back in India

Faf du Plessis captain of South Africa playing a shot during the South African national men's cricket team training session and press conference at Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium on October 08, 2019 in Pune, India.
Faf du Plessis captain of South Africa playing a shot during the South African national men's cricket team training session and press conference at Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium on October 08, 2019 in Pune, India.
Image: Isuru Sameera Peris/Gallo Images

There doesn’t seem to be much news value in the fact that Faf du Plessis appeared at his captain’s press conference before the second men’s Test between India and South Africa in Pune a day ahead of schedule.

But there is …

Du Plessis popped up on Tuesday because South Africa’s training session on Wednesday‚ when he was to have spoken with the press‚ was cancelled. What he said was embargoed until Wednesday morning.

“It’s to do with the heat of the previous Test‚” Du Plessis told reporters by way of explanation.

“The conditions were extremely hot and we spent a lot of time in the field. The thinking is to be fresh.”

India batted for 203 overs in the first Test in Visakhapatnam‚ where they won by — wouldn’t you know it — 203 runs on Sunday.

The last time South Africa spent more overs than that on trying to stop the opposition from scoring runs was 37 Tests and almost four years ago: India batted for 218 overs in Delhi in November 2015.

Only in seven of those 37 matches have the South Africans come within 30 overs — more or less a session — of languishing in the field for as long as they did in Vizag.

A consolation is that the visitors batted stubbornly enough in the first Test to keep the Indians out there for a marginal 7.5 fewer overs than South Africa.

Even so‚ India trained on Wednesday in a session that was optional but well-attended — Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami had the day off — and didn’t involve much beyond football and middle order types taking to the nets.

That kind of energy is part of the momentum that comes with success‚ but the South Africans will depend on other factors to try and change their fortunes.

“There’s not enough time to find your answers in the nets‚” Du Plessis said. “The work has been done before this series‚ so it’s about trusting that.

“We are a team that’s very resilient and we come back almost always.”

In Vizag‚ Du Plessis praised a pitch that‚ while undeniably Indian‚ allowed South Africa a fair crack at competing.

The surface in Pune‚ which was condemned officially as “poor” after Australia won the only previous Test there‚ by 333 runs inside three days in February 2017‚ is expected to be significantly more receptive to spin.

But Du Plessis wasn’t expecting a horror of the order of what he saw in Mohali and Nagpur in November 2015.

India won those games in less than three days‚ not least because conditions were skewed unfairly to achieve exactly that. Cue a “poor” verdict for Nagpur’s pitch.

Unsurprisingly‚ when India toured South Africa in January 2018 they were confronted with vicious greentops. It was the Wanderers’ turn to be rated “poor”.

Those days‚ Du Plessis believes‚ are over thanks to the International Cricket Council.

“That’s the big thing the [World] Test Championship has changed‚” he said.

“If you had a below average pitch you got a warning whereas now [WTC log] points are deducted.”

Not quite. Only if a match is abandoned because a pitch or indeed an outfield is deemed “unfit” do the points go to the away side. “Poor” still gets you a mere warning‚ and — as it does now — a suspended sentence threatening the withdrawal of the ground’s international status for a repeat offence.

Even so‚ confidence in a fairer deal for touring teams in India is probably not misplaced now that Virat Kohli’s team have built up enough success off their own bats not to have to depend on outrageously favourable conditions.

But it wouldn’t hurt to bat first. Had Du Plessis been practising the toss?

“A lot.”

South Africa fielded first in Mohali and Nagpur in 2015‚ and indeed in the last match of that series in Delhi — where they also lost.

That said‚ three of the five wins they have had in their 17 Tests in India have been earned batting second.

In the most recent of them‚ clinched by an innings and six runs in Nagpur in February 2010‚ Hashim Amla scored an undefeated 253‚ Jacques Kallis made 173‚ and Dale Steyn claimed a match haul of 10/108.

None of those giants are still in the mix‚ which adds to the theory that South Africa will retain their XI despite the result of the first Test. Who in the current squad could help engineer a better performance?

India‚ too‚ are likely to put their trust in the same combination.

But‚ with heavy rain forecast for most of the next five days‚ none of that might matter much.