“The ploy brings all kinds of dismissals into play. If the ball straightens or moves away, catch behind the stumps, bowled, LBW are all plausible manners of dismissal. If it sticks to its channel, the batsman is further cramped for room and could be bowled or LBW depending on the angle”.
South Africa’s tail made as little as 27 runs across two innings’ at Durban in the first Test. It is an appalling stat particularly if you consider that only three times since the turn of the century has a team’s tail performed poorer.
Quinton de Kock’s loss of form had prompted Ottis Gibson and Faf du Plessis to unleash a seven-man batting line-up unlike the six they used during the Indian series. This should ideally have strengthened South Africa’s tail for Vernon Philander and Keshav Maharaj are no mugs with the bat.
In fact, South Africa’s no.8-no.11 have averaged 54 runs in the last two years in Test cricket, which is pretty good amidst the record of other teams. Yet, in a shocking display of batting, the tail succumbed to the extreme hostility of one bowler – Mitchell Starc – whose sole aim seems to be to land that ball at pace straight at the stumps.
There is an age-old adage in cricket which goes like ‘if you miss I hit’. It is believed to be the best tactic against tail-enders and Starc has taken it to another level by ensuring that they miss 9/10 times. 31% of all his Test wickets are tail-enders. This in itself tells a tale.
What works for Starc is his ability to zone in on particular batsmen and their weaknesses but the generic theme remains the same. He angles the ball into the right-hander from around the wicket, gets the old cherry to reverse and move away or make it stick to its line.
The ploy brings all kinds of dismissals into play. If the ball straightens or moves away, catch behind the stumps, bowled, LBW are all plausible manners of dismissal. If it sticks to its channel, the batsman is further cramped for room and could be bowled or LBW depending on the angle.
Its a fairly straightforward tactic but one which is highly effective against batsmen susceptible to extreme pace. Forget the tail, even Faf du Plessis and Theunis de Bruyn struggled against Starc’s menacing angle from around the wicket.
The theme for left-handers remains the same. Starc, though, comes over the wicket and gets the ball to reverse back into the left-hander like the Rabada and Morkel dismissals in the first innings show.
The top six has been contributing pretty similarly for both teams with fairly close match-ups in terms of runs. But the stark difference between the bottom four is what separates the two teams at the moment.
To put things statistically, Australia’s last four added 160 runs in Durban while South Africa’s added 12 and 15 across the two innings’.
“Both teams were 160 for 5 in all four innings, so it shows the learning we can take is to be more ruthless with their tail. Once they got through the first seven or eight batters, it was pretty easy [for Australia] to get through our tail”, du Plessis had said post the match.
There is no doubting that the hosts need a plan against Starc’s fury. The left-arm seamer is unplayable with the old ball, particularly when it comes to sluggish wickets like at Kingsmead. The surface at Port Elizabeth is likely to be pretty similar and Starc could be as big a factor yet again.
But do the Proteas have a plan?
They not only need to find more resistance from their lower order but also look for ways to minimise the impact of Starc and Cummins with the bat.
“The tail is going to have to scrap, and the top seven or eight batters will have to take responsibility,” du Plessis had said.
There is no doubting that the bulk of the runs has to come from the top 7. That said, the tail should also be better positioned to deal with Starc. One method they could adopt is to try and put him off his length by batting well outside the crease. But then the Aussie has a pretty handy yorker and could take a crack at their feet.
Another possible way is to watch how he tails the ball away late and get their feet moving towards the ball without really committing. An astute judgement of their off-stump could help in leaving some of those balls moving away from them.
“I expect it to happen again,” Lehmann had opined stating about Starc’s menace against the tail. With Port Elizabeth set to be as dry as Durban and quite similar too, Proteas will know that has a high probability unless they get working and find ways to deal with the menacing Aussie seamer.