It is one thing to be dominated by Indian spinners in India, quite another to be dominated by them at home. But that’s what has taken place in the first half of the six-match series between the two teams, making many wonder if they’d gone back 25 years in time.
Back then the merest hint of a spinner even warming up would make SA batsmen buckle at the knees. Jonty Rhodes sweeping seemed just about the only way to halt the capitulation.
Never mind Warne and Muralitharan, South Africa made a bunch of pretty mediocre spinners look really good. Anyone remember Sunil Joshi? He claimed 5/6 against South Africa in Nairobi in 1999.
But to be fair to our batsmen, they have improved a great deal since. The sweep is not the only method to get off strike or to get a boundary. Hashim Amla all but ended Graeme Swann’s career at the Oval in 2012, and it was Amla who dominated India two years earlier by making three consecutive centuries in a two-Test series.
South Africa have long ago left their 1990s fear of spinners behind them. More exposure in conditions where spin is the primary mode of attack has helped and the likes of Amla, Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers have developed methods that have seen them dominate against spin.
As a result, South Africa built a proud record in the last decade, twice winning ODI series' against Pakistan (on neutral territory in the United Arab Emirates); they won an ODI series for the first time in Sri Lanka in 2014, and beat India in India 3-2 in 2015.
The biggest blip on recent trips to the sub-continent was in Bangladesh where they lost a series 2-1, but then the disappointment of the World Cup exit from earlier that year was still not out of their systems.
Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravendra Jadeja, in 2015, and then Moeen Ali, who bowled with superb rhythm and with great flight in England last year, have been the spinners who most recently in the Test arena have dominated the Proteas batsmen.
But as far as ODI cricket is concerned, it’s been a long time since spinners have proved so instrumental in the outcome of a series as has been the case with Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav here in the last fortnight.
When South Africa won in India in 2015, Harbhajan Singh, Axar Patel and Amit Mishrah, who did the majority of the spin bowling for the hosts, claimed just 15 wickets between them over the five-match series. Before Saturday's match at the Wanderers, Chahal and Yadav had taken 21 of the 28 South African wickets which fell.
“They’ve assessed conditions well, what speeds and lengths they need to bowl. They’ve not made it easier for us to get runs. A lot of us have not picked their googlies,” JP Duminy said after the trouncing SA copped at Newlands in the third match. “When you’re not picking their ‘wrong ‘un’, you’re not going to be comfortable, you’re always a bit tentative. Once you pick what they’re bowling you can play with confidence, with ease, with freedom.”
In this day and age with so much footage available from so many angles, which can slowed down, sped up, dissected and ‘split-screened’, to not be able to 'pick' a bowlers variations seems incredible.
It’s not as if either Chahal or Yadav are new to the scene; the former’s been contracted in the IPL for the past six years, although he only really made a breakthrough in 2015 for the Bangalore franchise, while Yadav has been on the books of a couple of IPL sides too and been an international player for the past year. Yet despite all that data on the two that’s been available, South Africa have still looked clueless when playing them.
“We’ve got game plans, but they’ve been good enough not to give us balls to play in our game plan,” said Duminy. “You have to put your hand up and say they’ve been too good for us. They’ve bowled a touch slower than our spinners, and they haven’t bowled the ball full enough for us to hit down the ground, which is where we’ve usually been successful in South African conditions.”
SA batting coach Dale Benkenstein admitted he was “amazed” at how slowly both Chahal and Yadav bowled, but that slower pace, of course allowed them to “rip” the ball more.
Almost as concerning as SA’s batting woes has been the failure of the spinners to even half match what Chahal and Yadav have done. Spinners picked up three wickets for the hosts before yesterday's game - two of those to Duminy, and Imran Tahir, recently ranked as the best ODI bowler in the world, had claimed just one.
There’s no magic formula that will cure SA’s ills here. As Smith, Kallis and Amla will attest, it will require hard work, creative thinking and patience. This is not the ‘90s’, although it sure does feel that way ...