Australia could be headed for a nightmare Test series on green seaming pitches in South Africa based on the very bowler-friendly surfaces the Proteas have requested in their current home series against India.
South Africa captain Faf du Plessis has openly admitted the Proteas have asked for juicy decks against India, with two of the three pitches used favouring quicks to an extreme extent.
So moist was the pitch for the third Test held over the past few days in Johannesburg that play had to be called off late on day three due to the dangerous state of the surface. This rare occurrence was prompted by South Africa opener Dean Elgar being struck on the helmet by a ball from Indian quick Jasprit Bumrah which reared viciously from short of a length, making it nigh-on impossible for Elgar to protect himself.
Batsmen from both teams had received similarly unplayable deliveries across the course of the Test, with some balls deviating sideways by an enormous amount and others either shooting low or exploding up at the batsmen.
The green deck for the first Test at Cape Town also offered massive assistance to the quicks, with extravagant seam movement and variable bounce. South Africa have not tried to hide the fact they requested the home curators prepare pitches which would suit their elite pace attack.
Clearly the Proteas believed the Indian batting line-up, so used to playing on slow, low pitches at home, would be unable to adapt. India’s batsmen have struggled badly, skipper Virat Kohli apart, but then so too have South Africa’s.
At the time of writing, no fewer than 13 top-seven batsmen had averaged 30 or less for the series, including accomplished players such as Hashim Amla, Quentin de Kock, Cheteshwar Pujara, Murali Vijay, Ajinkya Rahane, Dean Elgar, Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul.
The bad news for Australia is the Proteas surely will view them as being similarly vulnerable on seaming pitches. Australia’s batsmen have floundered time and again in such conditions in recent years, most recently against the Proteas in Hobart just over a year ago. South Africa’s quicks demolished Australia in that Test, dismissing them for 85 and 161 as the visitors claimed victory by an innings and 80 runs.
The previous year Australia were twice routed on juiced-up pitches in England. In the third Test at Birmingham Australia were embarrassingly bowled out in fewer than 37 overs on Day 1. If that wasn’t bad enough, they fell even lower in the fourth Test at Nottingham, all out for 60.
In the recently completed Ashes Australia’s batsmen dominated except for one innings at Adelaide where, with the ball seaming and swinging around, they collapsed for 138. The Proteas will be more wary of Australia’s pace attack than they were of India’s far less potent battery of quicks, but there’s still a strong chance they’ll back their phenomenal fast bowlers to outperform the Australian group of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood.
The strength of that Australian trio is their ability to overcome sleepy pitches thanks to their pace and bounce. But on seaming pitches accuracy is far more valuable than dynamism. That’s why the likes of South Africa’s Vernon Philander and England’s James Anderson are the world’s best bowlers in such conditions despite operating at a gentle pace.
Philander took 15 wickets at an average of 15 across the three Tests against India and was ably supported by Kagiso Rabada (15 wickets at 20), Morne Morkel (13 wickets at 20) and newcomer Lungi Ngidi (nine wickets at 17). So strong are South Africa’s pace stocks that they opted to play four quicks in the first two Tests against India and five quicks in the third Test.
There is a very real possibility Australia will have to battle a similarly pace-stacked Proteas line-up on seaming pitches in the four-Test series which starts in just over a month. This would be in stark contrast to the easy task of facing England’s limited pace attack on flat home pitches this summer.
Australia look set for a rude wake-up call after stacking up runs in the Ashes. A potential horror show awaits in South Africa.