South Africa will seriously consider an all-pace attack as they seek to whitewash India at the Wanderers this week. The hosts have fielded four quicks in each of the first two Tests along with their sole specialist spinner, Keshav Maharaj, but may bench Maharaj in favour of a fifth seamer on what is expected to be a spicy surface.
“It is definitely something we are speaking about in our selection. It’s an option,” Faf du Plessis said, on the eve of the match. “The wicket looks like it should be a normal Wanderers wicket. Tomorrow morning, we’ll just see what the pitch looks like and if there is the same amount of grass on it. Keshav is an extremely talented spinner and we are very lucky to have him. If we do think of leaving of him out, you have to be 100% sure that we have enough.”
The last time South Africa went without Maharaj, who has been the only spinner to feature in their starting XI since December 2016, was at the same ground against Sri Lanka last January. Sri Lanka had already lost the series 2-0 and, to rub their noses in it, South Africa chose to field four quicks – Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander, Wayne Parnell, and Duanne Olivier on debut – and blasted Sri Lanka out for under 200 both times, to win by an innings and 118 runs.
South Africa want to try and do the same to India. Though India are no Sri Lanka, they have also lost the series, their batsmen barring Virat Kohli are struggling, and their hold on the No.1 ranking could be closed down to a mere fraction if South Africa win 3-0. It’s little surprise that the prospect of a clean sweep is being spoken about as “big” in the South African camp. “Playing against India, you don’t get the opportunity a lot to be in a position of strength where we can beat them three-nil,” du Plessis said. “By no means is anyone in the team thinking this is an opportunity to take our foot off the gas. We are really motivated to get a three-nil win.”
But there are some cautionary tales South Africa need to bear in mind before going all guns blazing in the series finale. One is that India have never lost a Test at the Wanderers, something du Plessis admitted surprised him. “If you asked me if they’ve ever lost a game here, I’d definitely put something on it and say they’ve lost here,” he said. “With some grounds, you just get a bit of confidence in the way that you play and then you run with it. I can think of Perth in Australia, where we’ve never lost and we get there and we’re confident and we can perform. I’m sure they will rely on that.”
The other is that South Africa’s own batsmen have also struggled at the Wanderers in recent years. In January 2016, South Africa went for four quicks against England and were bowled out for 83, their lowest total since readmission. Ten years before that, India bowled the hosts out for 84 and recorded their first of only two wins in South Africa and du Plessis seems to be wary that his line-up could get into similar trouble. “India have played some good cricket here. Their bowling is good,” he said. “They’ve come this time around with a very good seam attack and if you have that you will be able to compete.”
That’s why South Africa are not only choosing between Maharaj and a fifth seamer but also between Maharaj, a fifth-seamer, an extra allrounder and an extra batsman, as they ponder whether they will need more security in the batting department. With Aiden Markram declared fit to play after a quad strain kept him off the field in Centurion and Chris Morris on paternity leave the choice is between Andile Phehlukwayo and Theunis de Bruyn, who had long net sessions on Monday and Tuesday. “It’s whether we go for an allrounder to give that option from a batting and bowling point of view or play seven batters and four seamers,” du Plessis said.
Whatever combination South Africa decide on, their approach remains the same: to keep their foot on the throats of India’s batsmen and try to make them feel as uncomfortable as possible at the country’s most intimidating venue.
“We have got a fantastic seam attack as well so it will be the battle between those two [attacks]. The pressure is in making sure we keep their batsmen under pressure. It’s been a pretty quiet series for most of them and if we can keep doing that, we will change that stat (of India never having lost a game at the Wanderers),” du Plessis said. “They are a team that’s under pressure being two-nil down in the series. The way that we start is really important. If they have a good start with the bat or ball, that’s when you can put a team down. They will have something that first day or that first hour and if we can be really solid, the fighting spirit will slowly go away.”