CENTURION: After arriving in South Africa, head coach Ravi Shastri asked his team to treat every game as a home game. “You see the conditions and adapt.. no excuses, no complaints,” is what he had said then. In Centurion, the groundsmen served on a platter a pitch that was not so different from what they’d expect to find back home. It was a gift that India would have least expected. But for a major part of Day 1, they appeared a bit reluctant to accept it.
A flat wicket with just a bit of extra bounce was on offer, where if pacers bent their back, they were in contention to get rewards. Instead, India’s speedsters stuck to the typical length you are told to do so in South Africa, forgetting — or unaware — of what strip they were bowling on. It was a quite a tale, considering that on the first day of a Test in South Africa, a spinner — Ravichandran Ashwin — bowled more overs than speedsters and also ended up picking up more wickets. If there was one bowler who kept India in the game throughout the day, it was the offspinner. He even bowled a 17-over spell on either side of lunch.
The signs were ominous for India. Hashim Amla’s batting was as good as ever, with his magical wrists piercing gaps and often sending the ball to large vacant spaces. With Faf du Plessis looking solid at the other end, South Africa were placed at 246/3. Then, out of nowhere, a turnaround began. Amla — on course for a well-deserved century — was run out, thanks to an outstanding effort from Hardik Pandya. Carrying on from his run-up, he picked the ball, and threw it in one motion as Amla — a bit late to start — was caught a yard short at the non-striker’s end.
That was the boost India were waiting for. Ashwin then removed the dangerous Quinton de Kock for a first-ball duck, with Virat Kohli completing a low catch at slip. In the next over, Vernon Philander set off on a suicidal run and India obliged as South Africa lost three wickets in the space of three overs and missed a big opportunity to land early blows. Despite struggling for most part of the day, India ended the day as the dominant side as the hosts finished the day at 269/6. India had entered the Test with doubts regarding the nature of the track.
But with no grass, they preferred to go in with Ishant Sharma ahead of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who had a stellar Test in Cape Town. You could understand the logic. Having picked the right arsenal — they perhaps could have gone for Umesh Yadav ahead of Jasprit Bumrah — they appeared clueless with execution. They were listless at times, deviating from their line and length in search of extracting something out of a pitch that had very little in terms of movement. If India were still figuring out what was going on, South Africa were making the most of it, as Aiden Markram, Amla found the going pretty easy.
With the pacers not finding any bite, Kohli moved from Plan A to Plan B to Plan C, and saw everything going awry. For a period they tried the leg-side trap, bowling short and aimlessly. On other occasions, they bowled short and wide, desperately hoping for South Africa’s batsmen to make a mistake. But none of it lasted that long as the pacers constantly struggled to get their acts right. That was quite telling when Mohammed Shami — who had a forgetful day — went down on his knees and eventually walked off in the second session, due to a headache caused by the heat.
Maybe Kohli too would’ve been suffering from one, seeing his pace attack dish out freebies after freebies to South Africa, when the conditions called for a more tighter line and length. With some luck, they managed to see the backs of Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram and AB de Villiers. But India will hit the bed on Saturday, knowing that they have gotten out of jail this time. There is still some work to do on Sunday with the ball, but not as much as they were fearing it would be at one stage.