Jacques Kallis ought to have known better. In his column for Hindustan Times, one of the greatest all-rounders of his era has said that the game would have been better off had the Nagpur pitch for the ongoing India vs South Africa Test match not been such a dry turner.
Kallis should have known better because in nine Tests against India in India, on turning pitches, he averaged 58.46 – higher than his career average of 55.37. Kallis had the wherewithal to deal with unfamiliar, hostile conditions. All the great batsmen do. Kallis’s compatriots have not been able to make even a half decent fist of it in this Test series.
It is in the nature of Test cricket that the surface plays a decisive role in the outcome of the match. All countries make pitches that play to the strength of their bowlers. A phrase exists to describe it: home advantage.
Remember the brutishly quick Perth pitch on which Sachin Tendulkar made his first hundred in Australia?
When India toured South Africa in December 2013, the hosts welcomed India for the first Test at Johannesburg with a pitch that was tailor made for Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander. (On that pitch, staring down the barrel, South Africa batted heroically on the final day to save the Test.)
When India toured England in 2014, former England spinner Graeme Swann likened the green surface, suited to England seam bowlers Jimmy Anderson and Chris Broad, to a bowl of mushy peas. (India outbowled England and won that Test.)
When England toured India in 2012, they were greeted by rank turners. Swann and Monty Panesar made better use of the conditions than the Indian spinners, and England won the series 2-1.
Winning Tests away from home is the most creditable achievement for any Test side. It is the true benchmark of quality. Which is why so few teams nowadays manage to do that with any degree of consistency. Which is why the greatest of teams, whether the West Indies under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards or the Australia under Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and the early years of Ricky Ponting, were able to pull it off.
South Africa are a formidable Test side. They are ranked No 1 in the world. Their previous teams have a decent record in India. The problem this time around is that their fast bowlers have been below par; their spinners are not of the quality required at this level; and their batsmen have been truly inept.
The last time the Proteas played India at Nagpur, they won by an innings and six runs. Hashim Amla scored a double century; and Steyn took ten wickets. Steyn is not in the side in this match because of injury; and Amla has been in woeful touch.
The 79 they were skittled out for on Thursday is now South Africa’s lowest total against India. Which was their lowest score before this? It was 84 in December 2006. The match was played in Johannesburg. South Africa had Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Shaun Pollock in their fast bowling arsenal. But it was India’s pacer S Sreesanth who turned into the demolition man. It was a low-scoring match – similar to the ongoing one. India won by 123 runs.
In every Test series, the conditions favour one team. Whichever of the two sides can make better use of them wins.