It's not dead
India may have battered South Africa into submission and sealed the series already, but the third Test is still valuable for both the teams
On the eve of the second India-South Africa Test in Pune the two captains were united on one thing. The Test Championship had ensured that every match played had that much more context, that every game was one that teams went into looking for a win. That will be put to the Test immediately when the final Test gets under way in Ranchi today.
After all, South Africa don’t just trail 0-2, they have been battered into submission in the two Test matches they played. While the lower-order showed plenty of fight in the first innings of the second Test, the manner in which the first half, the meat and bones of run-scoring, unravelled. Playing in India, with the SG ball, it is crucial not to lose too many wickets with the new ball. If you are three down for not very many, it becomes difficult for batsmen to put the pressure back on the bowling and cash in when the ball becomes soft and the seam less pronounced.
India have been excellent at getting stuck into the South African top-order, which will now be without Aiden Markram, who injured his hand punching a wall in frustration after bagging a pair in the previous Test. This meant Zubayr Hamza would be back in the mix.
Du Plessis has been long urged to bat higher up the order than his No. 5 position, and he moved up a slot in the second innings of the second Test. Here is another opportunity for him to do that. No place like India, with all the pressure on you, to lead from the front. “It is tough. It is tough when you're losing," du Plessis said. “For us, we're very, very competitive people, so it does take a dent out of your confidence, but international sport is supposed tobe hard, and the guys who've stayed at the top for a long time will tell you that it comes with ups and it comes with downs, personally and from a team point of view.”
Du Plessis also underscored the fact that India were unlikely to show any mercy, or even take the foot off the pedal a touch just because the series has been sealed and this is technically a dead rubber. “It's important for us to understand that we have to fight our way out of these last two losses.
We can't expect things just to happen. They won't happen, because India is a very powerful team at the moment,” said du Plessis. “As I said, their record at home is amazing. So is ours - I mean our record at home is just as good. So for us, it's just about trying to keep doing the things well, keep practising hard, keep doing the processes as well as you can, and then hopefully it's just a matter of time and you start winning again.”
Du Plessis cautioned against his team feeling too down and out, despite results not going their way. “We came here last time with a very strong team as well, very experienced international team that did very well overseas, the best record abroad, and we still found it challenging. There's an obvious reason that people who come to India find it tough to beat them at home. So it's not all doom and gloom for me in that aspect,” said du Plessis. “It's about trying to improve as players. There're a lot of young guys in the team, and they need to make sure that whatever they get out of this experience, when they come back in three or four years' time, they're better and stronger for it.”
Much has been made about South Africa losing the toss in the first two Tests, but this is a bit of a double-edged sword. Early on the first day is the best time for fast bowling in these conditions and India’s quick bowlers have displayed more control, skill, confidence and teamwork than their counterparts. While it is generally good to be in a position where you can choose whether to bat or bowl first, South Africa’s mindset is such at the moment that the Ranchi toss may just be a good one to lose.
This, considering du Plessis believed the pitch would take turn, but that the dark soil would offer a bit of extra hardness, paving the way for reverse swing. India have all these bases covered. With 40 Test Championship points up for grabs, South Africa are best served approaching this Test as a oneoff, putting the 0-2 behind them, but this is easier said than done.