JOHANNESBURG – The Proteas’ first opponents this summer lacked the pedigree, skill and temperament of the teams that toured here last season, and against whom South Africa were successful, so judging where the national team are currently is difficult.
Following the wrapping up of a series clean-sweep against Pakistan at noon on Monday with a 107-run win at the Wanderers, stand-in skipper Dean Elgar felt there were areas that had improved with South Africa’s play compared to last summer, when they beat India and Australia.
But he added that other areas – most notably the batting – could be better.
The need for improvement with the bat needs to be put in perspective, though. “Our Test wickets are very tough,” said Elgar.
“I’d like to think we can still score big runs in South Africa. I suppose you can if you apply yourself and if you’re in a very good mental space, but the wickets are very tough.”
In this series, especially in the first two Tests, that was most certainly the case.
Proteas coach Ottis Gibson stuck to his argument that batsmen could still make runs, but given South Africa’s fast-bowling resources, it would be stupid if the home team didn’t set up conditions to suit their strengths.
“We wanted to play four fast bowlers, the pitches suited that. They did a fantastic job. Batsmen struggled for runs, but batsmen still got runs. We got two hundreds in the series,” Gibson explained.
They were the only two hundreds in the series as well. The 17 half-centuries suggest scoring wasn’t impossible, but it was very hard work.
“There will be more sensitivity around how batsmen are judged (in South Africa),” said Elgar.
“I don’t want to say the days of averaging 45-plus are gone, I still think there is room for that, the best batters will reach those goals. But it will be a challenge, you won’t be as free-flowing on the wickets we are playing (on).
“A bit more hard cricket, gritting it out. Free-scoring needs to be put to the side until you get in, it will be hard work for batters going forward.”
Indeed when asked if Theunis de Bruyn was in danger of losing his spot – he averaged 18.66 and had a highest score of 49 against Pakistan – for the Tests against Sri Lanka next month, Gibson firmly said: “No.”
“I keep saying to the batters, when the wickets are like this, you don’t need to score 500, it’s not necessary.
“If we get 262, on a fast, bouncy track, 262 with our fast bowlers is a great score because we know we can knock a team over for under that, which is what we did.
“It’s been tough for the batters, they might complain outside the dressing room, but within the dressing room, no one is complaining about the pitches.
“We are getting stuck in and trying to get as many runs as we can get to give our bowlers the best opportunity they can get.”
Of course the quick bowlers aren’t complaining, and in South Africa’s case, having three of them able to bowl at 140km/h or more mean the hosts were able to get more out of the helpful pitches than was the case for the Pakistanis.
Duanne Olivier finished the series with 24 wickets – one shy of the South African record for the most wickets in a three-Test series set 116 years ago by Charlie Llewellyn against Australia.
Kagiso Rabada, despite claiming that he was only operating at 70 percent – “he’s bowling 145 and I’m thinking okay,’ ‘I look forward to when you’re feeling 100 percent’,” said Gibson – still picked up 17 wickets at an average of 18.70, while Dale Steyn finished the series with 12 wickets.
“You have to play to your strength, and if your strength is four quality fast bowlers, then use those,” said Gibson.
“When you look at the opposition and see they are accustomed to playing on slow wickets, then why not produce fast, bouncy pitches when you are playing at home?
“Our batsmen are comfortable playing on those pitches. We will continue to play this brand of cricket because it’s successful.”