Fortunes sway as Proteas go 1-0 up

When a Test match happens in South Africa, bowlers & batsmen hold almost equal odds at over-powering each other, as opposed to what happens in the sub-continent. Cape Town has more often than not offered pitches that favour bowlers slightly over batsmen. This was proven once again as the Test match ended in three full days of play. Both teams were in with a chance to win the match, but the hosts, South Africa bowled their hearts out in the final innings after being bowled out for a paltry total and setting a target of just 208 for India. This is how the riveting encounter unfolded in the four days.

Faf du Plessis won the toss and decided to bat on a surface that wasn’t the greenest one seen in Newlands. However, there was enough grass on it to keep the quicks interested and licking their fingers. The Indian management pulled a surprise by handing Jasprit Bumrah his maiden Test cap. At the toss, Kohli mentioned that Bumrah was the better-looking bowler during training and deserved the debut. When the match began, it was Bhuvneshwar Kumar who gave Team India the perfect start by picking a wicket in each of his first three overs. He accounted for the two openers and hooked the big fish, Hashim Amla, all of them for single digit scores.

Faced with an early challenge, AB de Villiers who was making his return decided to move from the back seat to the front. He shifted gears and counter-attacked, only to be joined by his captain, Faf du Plessis at the other end. They put on a 114-run stand, not allowing the Indian bowlers to play on the early advantage on Day 1. It was debutant, Jasprit Bumrah who finally got India the much-needed breakthrough. He got ABD to drive away from his body and the ball went on to hit the stumps. Hardik Pandya chipped in soon after to dismiss the Protea captain, du Plessis.

Quinton de Kock continued the legacy of the de Villiers-du Plessis stand by playing aggressively. He scored over a run-a-ball and received decent support from the other end. The South African lower order offered a lot of resistance, as the Indian bowlers found it hard to wrap up the innings. The Proteas managed to put up 286 runs on the board, which at the moment seemed a lot.

The Indian batsmen had to negotiate with the new ball for a few overs, and it was no easy task by any means. They had to face the pace quartet of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel & Kagiso Rabada. Dhawan looked to play a few strokes and enjoyed some success. However, both Vijay & Dhawan lost their wickets in successive overs. Virat Kohli couldn’t survive till stumps, as he played a very loose stroke outside his off stump, handing an easy catch to de Kock, adding to the joy in the Proteas camp. India went into stumps three down!

Rohit Sharma & Cheteshwar Pujara decided to defend and leave as much as they could at the start of Day 2. They seemed rock solid for a while, but it was only a matter of time before a good ball came along and sent one of them back. That happened when Kagiso Rabada brought one in and trapped Rohit Sharma right in front. India didn’t score many, but lost just the one wicket by lunch.

On the other side of lunch, we saw a different Pujara who fished for one way outside the off stump, nicking the ball and losing his wicket after doing all the hard work. Ashwin & Saha couldn’t handle the pressure either, and were dismissed too, leaving India in tatters at 92/7. Hardik Pandya at the other end, was trying his best to fend at deliveries and survive. And, he did a fair job too!

Bhuvneshwar Kumar walked out with stubbornness & determination of the highest order. He took over 30 balls to get off the mark, but left and blocked the ball with great skill. He didn’t look like a number 9 batsman. At the other end, Hardik Pandya had enough of ‘inside-the-shell’ batsmanship, and took on loose deliveries. He lofted the ball in front of the wicket and behind, finding a few important boundaries to keep India’s scoreboard ticking. Then came a few overs where Hardik freed his arms at will and picked up a couple of boundaries. He hit his first six off Keshav Maharaj’s first over. Bhuvneshwar Kumar grew in confidence and played a couple of lovely drives to support Hardik. The partnership was on 99 when Bhuvi feathered one to de Kock. The stand got India’s innings back on track and took the total closer to 200.

With just two wickets remaining, Hardik decided to attack, and so did the Protea bowlers. They bowled many short deliveries, forcing Hardik to duck and sway out of a few. Shami hung in there for a bit while Pandya entered the nineties. With the short-ball peppering continuing, Pandya tried to back away and cut the ball over the off-side, but edged the ball to the keeper, seven short of his second Test ton. India finally got bowled out for 209, and conceded a lead of just 77 to the Proteas.

After having a good day with the bat, Hardik Pandya contributed with the ball too. Late on Day 2, he claimed both the South African openers, giving India a good start in the second innings with the ball. The Proteas sent in the night-watchman, Kagiso Rabada at the fall of the second wicket, and he managed to survive with Amla till stumps.

Day 3 was marred by rain and thunderstorms! At the scheduled start time, the groundsmen were hopeful that the rain would subside and we would get some play later in the day. However, rain returned in the afternoon and play was called off completely.

Day 4 began with bright sunshine! India used the newly fresh surface to the best of their abilities. Mohammed Shami provided the team with the first wicket, the important one of Hashim Amla who was caught brilliantly, low down at gully. Rabada’s wicket was snapped up by the pacer from Bengal too. South Africa were suddenly two down, early in the morning.

Bumrah was bowling in the right channel right from the start of his spell. He got the South African skipper with a beauty! The ball landed on a length and spat upwards, forcing du Plessis to fend awkwardly. The ball kissed the blade and floated into Saha’s hands, ending his stay in the middle for a duck. South Africa were in need of another counter-attacking resistance from AB de Villiers & Quinton de Kock, but Bumrah bowled another peach of a delivery that got the better of the latter. South Africa were suddenly reduced to 92/6.

With the lower order exposed, India could sense the kill and the pacers bowled a good mix of short and full deliveries. Philander was picked up for zero by Shami, his third wicket. Bhuvneshwar Kumar joined the wickets’ column by sending both Keshav Maharaj and Morne Morkel back into the hut. Jasprit Bumrah managed to get the wicket of an attacking AB de Villiers who hoicked one into the deep. Bhuvneshwar Kumar stayed well-balanced near the ropes and held on to a fine catch to end the South African innings on just 130. India were thus set a target of 208. On paper, this did seem low, but even a South African attack devoid of Dale Steyn looked good and would put up a fight against the star-studded Indian batting line-up.

India’s chase began with a lot of caution. After losing their wickets cheaply in the first innings, Vijay & Dhawan looked to leave as much as they could. Vijay survived a couple of on-field decisions that went against him. The first one was an lbw decision that went against him. He reviewed it after being prompted by Dhawan. The Hawk Eye showed the ball bouncing over the stumps. The second decision was that of a caught-behind. He reviewed it instantly, without any consultation. Replays showed day-light between bat and ball, and Vijay survived once again.

South Africa got their first opening when Dhawan was caught unawares by a short delivery off Morkel. He played an awkward short, only to be caught at gully with the score on 30. India’s score didn’t move from that mark when Vijay got a good delivery and pushed at it, edging the ball to de Kock. Kohli and Pujara, India’s two most experienced batsmen were brought together.

The Indian skipper looked confident and the body language was positive. He looked to rotate strike whenever the opportunity presented itself. Pujara though, got an unplayable delivery by Morkel. It landed on off, forced Pujara to prod at it, and left the batsman, finding a faint edge through to the keeper.

Kohli & Rohit tried their best to stitch a steadying stand for India. They didn’t miss out on many scoring opportunities, and ran pretty well between the wickets apart from the odd blemish. However, Kohli got done in by an in-swinger by Philander. The skipper couldn’t get his bat down on time, and got rapped on his pads. He was adjudged out and decided to review the decision. Hawk Eye showed all reds, and Kohli had to walk back.

Rohit Sharma got a life right after Kohli’s wicket. He looked to pull the ball half-heartedly, ballooning it to deep square leg. Maharaj got under the ball, but couldn’t get his hands to it at all. The agony didn’t last long as Rohit played a rather loose stroke outside the off stump, dragging the ball back on to his stumps. Hardik walked in to replace him, and his stay was short-lived too. Hardik tried to push at a ball with hard hands and got caught at gully.

Saha and Ashwin seemed to survive for a bit. With tea around the corner, they didn’t take many risks. To add on to India’s agony, Saha was trapped on the final ball of Tea. He was given out by the on-field umpire, but chose to review. The ball was just about clipping leg stump, and the review didn’t help Saha.

Ashwin & Bhuvneshwar Kumar kept India in the hunt as they took the score beyond 100. South Africa were forced to hand the ball to Keshav Maharaj and the Indians played him rather comfortably. Bhuvi & Ashwin kept the scoreboard ticking and stitched a handy partnership. Runs came off the middle and the edges of the bat. They re-built some belief in the Indian camp via the partnership, but another piece of brilliance by Philander led to the fall of India’s eighth. Quinton de Kock was brought up to the stumps, and when Ashwin edged a cut shot off Philander, he clung on to it, breaking the 49-run stand.

Philander was on a roll, as he wiped out the remaining two wickets in the same over, bundling India out for 135. He finished with figures of 6/42, his best figures in an innings in Tests, at his home ground. South Africa claimed the first Test by 72 runs, as 18 wickets fell on Day 4 at Newlands.

The first Test was fiercely competitive, as both teams had fair chances to stay on top. Fortunes swung both ways on all three days when cricket was played, but the bowling by both sides was top-class. It’s the batsmen from both units who need to go back to the drawing board and re-work a thing or two in their techniques. The second Test begins on 13th January, at Centurion.

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