“Mission accomplished”. That was coach Ottis Gibson‘s assessment of South Africa’s clean sweep of Pakistan across three absorbing Test matches. And while South Africa’s bowlers have stood out in this series – with Gibson suggesting that Duanne Olivier‘s record-breaking 25 wickets were the difference between the two sides – the home batsmen have been the unsung heroes.
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“We did exactly what we set out to do,” Gibson said. “We wanted to play four fast bowlers, and the way we played, the pitches suited four fast bowlers. The four fast bowlers did a fantastic job. Batsmen struggled for runs, but they still scored: we got two hundreds in the series, and all in all, mission accomplished.”
Quinton de Kock and Faf du Plessis‘ hundreds are at the top of the pile, but several members of South Africa’s top order adapted superbly to conditions unsuited to free-flowing scoring. Tough pitches have required an extra ounce of grit in their efforts, and the likes of Temba Bavuma and Hashim Amla have risen to the occasion more than once.
“You’ve got to analyse the conditions we play in,” Dean Elgar, South Africa’s stand-in captain for the third Test, suggested. “Our Test wickets are very tough. I’d like to think that you can still score big runs in South Africa, and you can if you really apply yourself and you’re in a good mental space. But the wickets we play on are very tough on the batters.”
“As bad as people have said the wickets have been, we got two quality hundreds and quite a few fifties,” Gibson said. “Temba Bavuma was outstanding in this series. He never got a hundred, but the job that he did. Hashim in both innings in this match, and especially on the third day, we could easily have been bowled out but for the way Hashim played. And then Quinny scored a brilliant hundred as well.
“I keep saying to the batters ‘when the wickets are like this, you don’t need to score 500’. If we get 262 in the first innings, with our four fast bowlers on a fast bouncy track that’s a great score, because we know that we can knock a team over for under that, which we did. It’s been tough for the batters. They might complain outside the dressing room, but inside the dressing room none of the batters are complaining about the pitches. We’re just getting stuck in and trying to get as many runs as we can get to give our bowlers the chance to operate.”
Conditions have, inevitably, meant that not all of South Africa’s batsmen have been able to cash in. Elgar made just the one fifty, while Theunis de Bruyn’s top score fell one short of a half-century and Zubayr Hamza managed 41 on debut in the first innings but registered a duck in the second.
“The guys are quite new,” Elgar said. “Theunis is inexperienced at this level, and Hamza came in on his Test debut, and that’s always going to be tough. The pressure and intensity that you face at Test level is going to be higher than what you’re used to at domestic level.
“You’ve got to have a few inexperienced guys around because they’ve got to take the game forward in a few years’ time. So, it’s important that we carry those guys around. They need to play, that’s the only way you get experience. Unfortunately, you do have to go through a few failures in your career, but it’s about how you bounce back from those failures going forward.”
For de Bruyn, Hamza and even Elgar himself, there is a certain amount of leeway in the results they achieve, given that South Africa’s focus is on their quicks, and on preparing home pitches that suit their strengths. Batting failures are almost inevitable, and that requires good communication, and added mental fortitude among South Africa’s batsmen.
“There’s definitely going to be a sensitivity around that,” Elgar said. “I wouldn’t say the days of averaging 45 plus are gone. There’s still room for that and your best batters will reach those goals. But it’s always going to be a challenge, and you won’t be as free flowing on the wickets we’re playing on. A bit more hard kind of cricket. Gritting it out. Free scoring, you’ve got put that aside until you get in. It’s going to be hard work for the batters. We’re going to have hard times obviously, but you’ve got to adapt.
“We’ve got no choice. Our strength is our bowlers, and we’ve got to use what we have. That’s our arsenal. I sit here as a batter, and I’ve also got to fight through that. You’re going to get a good ball with your name on it when you’re playing on wickets like this, which is tough. A lot of guys might get down on that, because you want to do well. That’s why we play this game. But failure is always going to happen in this game, and with the wickets we’re playing on, it’s always going to be tough for us.”
As seam-friendly as conditions have been during this series, the performances of du Plessis, Amla, Bavuma and de Kock have also shown that run-scoring, while often difficult, is by no means impossible. De Kock’s second innings century at the Wanderers took him to the top of the runs tally for the series which is a remarkable turnaround considering his troubles with the bat in the longest format in 2018. For Elgar, de Kock’s new-found confidence – won from his exhilarating performances in the Mzansi Super League where he was Cape Town Blitz’s leading run-getter with 412 runs at 58.85 – has helped to spark his change in fortunes. The hard work he has put in behind the scenes hasn’t hurt either.
“Quinny has been in awesome form this summer,” Elgar said. “He played a seriously good MSL T20 league. I know it’s a different format, but he’s a confidence player and that tournament gave him a lot of confidence coming into this series. It’s awesome to see the way he’s batting now. He was working on a few technical things, and it’s good to see that the hard work has paid off for him. He’s trained extremely hard physically, not only on his cricket but also off the field, and it’s paid off for him.”
Elgar highlighted South Africa’s adaptability to conditions as a major positive for the side, but suggested that “scoring more hundreds”, regardless of conditions, was a goal moving forward. While he was rightfully proud of the team’s performance under his leadership, he also said that South Africa could be even better when firing on all cylinders.
“I don’t think we played at 100 percent throughout the series,” Elgar said. “I always thought we were maybe at 70, 75 percent throughout the series, so for us to get close to 100 percent is another goal for us. I’m sure a lot of guys would agree with what I’m saying that we haven’t played our best cricket. But we’re still winning, so I can’t wait for when we’re actually in that 90 to 100 percent bracket. I can’t wait to see what we can achieve.”
“We will certainly continue to play this brand of cricket, because it is successful, and ultimately that’s what we want to be,” Gibson said. “We want to be successful, and if it’s working for us then we’ll continue this trend.”