Bowling at SuperSport Park is “100%” similar to bowling in India and “really hard work” for the quicks on a surface that traditionally provides assistance, according to Morne Morkel, whose career began at Centurion. Morkel is the first player to offer something beyond a mere acknowledgment that this surface is not what quite what South Africa wanted and agreed that bowling on it was closer to being in India than at home.
“I have played cricket here all my life and I have never seen a wicket like this at SuperSport Park. It was really hard work. With the heat and conditions tough, it was one of the hardest spells I’ve bowled,” Morkel said. “It’s unheard of that a spinner bowls that amount of overs on the first day. We even took the option to open in the over before lunch with a spinner. There’s a very subcontinental feel to it. It’s tough scoring and tough to get people out. Luckily we’ve got some experience of that in the bank. But they are not the conditions that we want here in South Africa.”
In temperatures in the mid-30 degrees and high humidity, Morkel delivered 22.1 overs over two days, more than any other quick and reaped the most reward. He shared the new ball with Keshav Maharaj, who was used for one over, and found there was only a short period of time when he could make it move. “You’ve got a small little window with the new ball. I think the first hour in the mornings, the reason might be because it’s under covers overnight, but in the first hour the balls seems a little bit quicker off the deck. But after that, there’s actually been no pace in the wicket,” Morkel said.
The lack of significant pace and bounce has meant South Africa have had to come up with more innovative game plans. Faf du Plessis set unusual fields, especially when Maharaj was bowling but the seamers tended to stick to a line outside off stump. Morkel explained that they did not consider bowling straighter because they regard that as playing to India’s strengths.
“There’s a very fine line when you bowl to them too straight. They are very good players when you attack the stumps. You can’t really attack middle stump, it’s too straight for them and they can take the game away,” Morkel said. “With the ball keeping low, reverse swing, those are the options we will discuss tomorrow. We’ll work out some different fields. But at first getting the ball outside the eye line with extra bounce and pace is the key for us.”
The fifth and sixth-stump line was employed with particular rigour against Virat Kohli, with the intention to trap the Indian captain with the delivery that came into him, as Vernon Philander did at Newlands. This time, it did not work until Kohli had almost single-handedly taken India 28 runs shy of South Africa’s total.
“We’ve got a couple of options that we turn to. It’s quite tough when the wicket is so slow. And if you get a batsman of his quality, he’s got time to adjust,” Morkel said. “For us, it’s just to keep him quiet on this sort of surface, and bowl as many dot balls as possible. He came out with a lot of intent yesterday, looking to score and looking to take the game forward. And for us it was just to hit our straps and stop them from scoring too quickly.”
Knowing that Kohli will look to take them on again, South Africa will want to make sure they bat themselves into a position of safety before going on the attack, and Morkel thinks they are already almost half way there. “Off the top of my head, I think maybe 250 on Day 5. With the wicket now turning a little bit and keeping a little bit low, I think 250 can be a very good score,” Morkel said.
If that proves enough, South Africa won’t care whether they got there in conditions which seemed closer to India or not.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.