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When cleaning up the tail, there's no substitute for pace

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India_South_Africa_tail-enders_pace_speed_bowling_cricketTime: all the best batsmen seem to have it in abundance. This is demonstrated whenever a world class player gets into position early and seems to wait an age for the ball to arrive before executing a picture perfect shot.

Whether it is Sachin Tendulkar leaning forward to caress one through the covers, Ricky Ponting rocking on to the back foot to pull through midwicket or AB de Villiers crouching low to audaciously whip an uncategorised stroke over fine leg, the same rule applies: the best batsmen have more time.

The antithesis is true for those lower down the order. Tail-enders often find their stumps have been uprooted long before their front foot has made contact with the pitch. By the time the keeper has the ball safely pouched in his gloves, a tail ender may still be contemplating which shot he ought to have played. Or even which shot he ought to play.

This is why they hate pace. Never mind the fear factor; lower order batsman struggle against fast bowling because they lack the hand, eye and foot speed to deal with it.

Which brings us to the telling difference between the South African and Indian bowling attacks and what we can expect as this series unfolds.

On a seaming wicket in Newlands, the Indian bowlers stood up and exceeded expectations. Bhuvneshwar Kumar was exceptional on the first morning, bagging three wickets inside 6 overs to leave the hosts reeling at 12-3.

Jasprit Bumrah, on debut, was lively through the air and regularly hit the 140km/h mark. Mohammed Shami and Hardik Pandya played their role in dismissing their hosts for 286 on the first day and then 130 to give their side a real shot at a famous victory. It wasn’t to be as Vernon Philander returned with a career best 6-42 in the 4th innings to hand South Africa a 72 run victory.

 

There can be no discounting the wonderful performance from the Indian bowlers. But as accurate as the Indians were, and as much as they managed to extract movement off a helpful surface, the fact remains that when it comes to raw pace they simply can’t compete with the South Africans.

 

The home side won by 72 runs despite playing a batsman light. Philander, who walked in at 7, may be handy with a bat but he is by no means a true all-rounder. The same can be said of Keshav Maharaj. Along with Kagiso Rabada, the trio of bowlers who know how to hold a bat combined for 84 first innings runs; a significant contribution in the context of the low scoring match.

One of the reasons why they were able to settle in can be attributed to the lack of pace from the Indian seamers. Kumar admitted after day 1 that the game plan against these lower order batsmen was to adopt a shorter length in an attempt to dry up the runs. They were not bouncing them out nor pinning them back in the crease.

Compare this to the approach of the South African attack, or indeed the Australians in the recent Ashes. Short pitched bowling is highly effective against batsmen who don’t like it fast and is often the most efficient method to blow away a tail.

To say that India lost this match as a result of those South African lower order runs on the first day (not including the 16 and 2 from Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel respectively) would be a stretch. But it would be remiss to discount the importance of those runs, accrued after Quinton de Kock left the scene with the score on 221-7.

In Asia, India’s tail (8-11) averages 17.94 per batsman per innings. Outside of Asia, this drops to 14.98. When playing in South Africa or Australia, the two countries that continue to regularly churn out fast bowlers, this drops even further to 12.57.

 

Clearly Indian tail-enders do not enjoy pace, but neither do the South Africans. Since being readmitted to international cricket in 1992, South Africa’s tail has averaged 18.81. When facing up Australia, the only other nation that has been able to field a battery of pace, this drops to 14.3.

 

Australia is the only country with a tail that averages more in South Africa and Australia (18.11) than it does in all countries (16.91). This can be chalked up to their struggles in Asia, where they averaged 13.64, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that touring sides don’t possess enough fast bowlers who can ruffle the Aussies’ feathers.

If Virat Kohli wishes to stage a comeback at Centurion on Saturday, he has to instruct his bowlers to be ruthless against the lower order. Kumar showed that is possible with a snorter that had Morkel in a tangle, dismissing the big man in the second innings. Sure, these Indians aren’t as quick as the South Africans, but they are certainly quick enough to bowl bouncers that do more than stifle the lower order.

This approach would be bold as it would open up India’s bowlers to receiving the same treatment and, as we’ve already stated, the South Africans would be dishing up a much more hostile barrage. Despite the risks to their own well-being, this aggressive mindset has to be employed by the Indian bowlers.

And why not? The first Test is riddled with examples to suggest this Indian team is unlike any that has toured these shores before. For one, they have a belligerent captain much in the mould of a hard-nosed South African or Australian who is not afraid to get in the face of the opposition.

Secondly, by only picking five proper batsmen and by stating that they intended to bowl first, Virat Kohli is at least trying to think outside the box no matter the consequences.

Fighting fire with fire against the South Africans could see an Indian bowler cop a nasty blow as he takes his position in the firing line. It could see Rabada or Morkel add an extra few clicks through the air. It might galvanise an already buoyed and boisterous home crowd eager for revenge after the drubbing in India in 2015.

No matter. Taking on the tail with brute force is a tried & tested method, and with two games left in a three match series, some boldness is required. Whether or not the Indians are up for it remains to be seen.

 

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Daniel is a freelance sports journalist from Johannesburg who would always rather be watching Test ...

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