As they arrived at the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium on a grey Tuesday morning, South Africa entered the final week of what has been a seemingly interminably long Indian tour. Between their T20 warm-up in Delhi on September 29 and now, they have spent 64 days and clocked about 14,000 air kilometres. In this stretched-out space and time, as late summer crystallized into winter, South Africa have seen hope turn into despair. Memories of series wins in T20s and ODIs have faded behind a smokescreen of dust, and their reputation of being the finest travellers in world cricket lays buried underneath a heap of fifty wickets in five innings.
From the debris, though, there’s one thing still left to salvage. Honour. As Hashim Amla said after the third match: “You want to lose honourably, and you want to win honourably as well.”
It must have gnawed at Amla and his men’s pride that for a vast majority of this series, they weren’t even keeping an appearance of competing.
There was a feeling after the first Test in Mohali that South Africa had frozen in fear at the sight of a dry and dusty — but not really unplayable — wicket. In Bangalore, then, they folded up quickly on a decent strip. The fight that you expect to see from a No.1 team was sorely missing.
Then came Nagpur. It would have been difficult for any team — and any batsman of whatever skill set — to survive on the pitch that had begun to look like a patch of freshly tilled earth on Day One. After getting all out for 79 in the first innings, and having surrendered with it all possibilities of a leveling the series, the Saffers decided to do something they hadn’t all November. They fought back. For 46.1 overs, Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis together resisted Indian spinners with every ounce of their existence, and in doing so, they made it a contest. South Africa would lose the match and the series, but they would win that one innings, having scored more runs than the Indian team. In terms of overs, South Africa, in their second innings, played 89.5. It was the only time either team had come close to lasting a full day of Test cricket (90 overs) in this series.
No mean achievement given that they were facing a far superior spin attack than what India were up against. And also given that it came in the fourth innings on a pitch that everyone but the Indian team — even the ICC — deemed was ‘poor’.
“One consolation would be that the conditions we played in. We haven’t experienced this type of challenge before,” Amla said after his valiant effort, asked to count the positives after the series defeat. “I haven’t played on this before in my life anywhere away from home, so I suppose it’s a bit of consolation because it was really challenging and you never know if we had come against this before what would have happened.”
After hot and dusty Nagpur, the cool, even if smoggy, Delhi must be a welcome change for the tourists.
And as they entered the Kotla ground, the Saffers were in for a surprise. There was proverbial light at the end of the players’ tunnel. By default or design, the pitch looked alright. It highlights how strange this series has been. The quotidian has become rare, and the abnormal has become the norm.
If it doesn’t look like the VCA Stadium pitch, it could be because the cool December weather means you can’t have an outright dry surface, for there is bit of moisture in the air. It could also be that the criticism of Nagpur pitch has made the BCCI a bit wary. Moreover, India have won the series, there doesn’t seem to be any excuse left to lay another minefield for the Proteas.
In any case, South Africa’s assistant coach Adrian Birrell looked relieved at the sight of what is your usual Kotla track — slow and low but one that begins to offer turn from day two onwards, and not from ball one.
“We have had a look at the pitch. We are playing in India and we expect pitches to turn. This one looks like to go on for more than three days,” said Birrell.
“We are happy with what we saw. Like every other pitch, we are happy to play on what we are provided with. But we have not played good cricket yet, so we are determined to put up a good performance. I liked what Hashim told us during the (Nagpur) match…’Win or lose, we will put up an honourable fight’,”.
Later on Tuesday afternoon, the Indian team too turned up at the stadium. Ravi Shastri and Bharat Arun walked straight to the wicket. Ignoring their protesting midriffs, they bent forward to feel the good length spots on either side of the strip. A defiant Shastri had in a recent interview said recently that he would want the Delhi pitch to be the same as the one in Nagpur.
Now that it looks unlikely he will get his wish, Shastri must urge his wards to go and try to win this one fair and square. India have the series in their pocket. They now need to show they can hold their end of the bargain up and win — or lose/draw — honourably.