The Proteas’ 203-run defeat in the first Test against India can rightly be described as another walloping, but it certainly wasn’t down to the pitch in Visakhapatnam being a dust bowl.
The hosts’ combined 825 runs in two innings, allied to South Africa’s own 431 in their first batting effort, provides ample evidence in that regard.
Yet the reasonably easy nature of that surface doesn’t mean some observers are still wary of Pandurang Salgaoncar, Pune’s groundsman, producing an iffy strip for the second Test starting on Thursday.
However, the build-up to the Test has been dominated by various relevant individuals believing it will be a competitive wicket … and that gives the Proteas undoubted hope.
Here are a few reasons why.
According to various reports, Pune hasn’t been spared the vast amounts of rain that have lashed the country in the past few weeks.
Damp conditions make it distinctly more difficult to cultivate a hard, dry wicket and the square at the MCA Stadium was apparently quite green before the goundstaff started mowing the grass.
No-one is saying it’ll be a proverbial “Green Mamba”, but a cracked, dusty turner also doesn’t seem immediately likely.
The context of the game
Test cricket isn’t just a bilateral battle between countries anymore.
There’s a ICC Test Championship points table to take note of too … and with that comes new penalties for host nations that doctor pitches to potentially count in their favour.
“With the Test championship, it has changed,” said Proteas skipper Faf du Plessis.
“That’s the big thing the Test championship has changed. In the past, if you had a below-average pitch, you got a warning, whereas now you get deducted points.”
A points deduction would require a match to be abandoned though it’s still reasonable to expect a home team won’t want to take that risk.
India’s new attitude to Test cricket
There’s a reason why Virat Kohli and his troops are currently ranked the No 1 team in the Test format: they’ve become an all-conditions team.
Investing in players with varied skills and exposing them to more balanced pitches has paid off for India – they ran the Proteas close in 2018 and recorded a notable Test series win over the Aussies earlier this year.
“We don’t ask for the kind of wickets that we get. To us, to be a good No. 1 team in the world, any conditions that come your way, you’ve got to accept and say these are home conditions. Even when we go abroad, we hardly take a look at the wicket,” said India’s bowling coach, Bharat Arun.
Even if there are devils in the surface, the Proteas have heeded lessons (apparently)
Du Plessis continues to take confidence from South Africa’s 431 last week.
“I think the first innings for me was possibly the difference with us from 2015 (where SA never scored more than 214 in seven innings),” he said.
“You try and survive on Indian spinning conditions and with that you can become too defensive and allow the opposition to be on top the whole time. There needs to be a good combination of positive play, element of taking risks at some stage of the game to transfer the pressure on the bowling team.”
A groundsman being watched like a hawk
Salgaoncar is said to be one of the most reclusive curators in India, generally unwilling to field questions over what type of surface he’s preparing.
Don’t expect him to be sympathetic to South Africa’s cause, but he certainly can’t afford much suspicion over the state of the wicket.
Pune received a “poor” rating from the ICC for it’s inaugural Test against Australia in 2017, before Salgaoncar himself was suspended for six months by the world governing body after a sting operation revealed he was very much willing to pass on pitch information to admittedly undercover bookmakers.