And that is that for the day, play ending with three overs of the allotted quota unbowled. Rohit Sharma and Che Pujara walking off, with India on a perilous 28/3. The biggest problem for the side now is the fact that it is a batsman light — Saha in next, then Pandya, and Ashwin.
The situation India is in reinforces the point about the need for openers to settle in, not try and get too far ahead of themselves. Vijay played at one he normally leaves alone; Dhawan played a pull at one that no batsman in the world could have pulled successfully, and Virat Kohli got a brute of a delivery from Morkel to wreck the innings.
It lets the team in now for a back to the wall fightback, made all the harder by the lack of batting depth. But then, the side has been talking of its new-found character, of its never say die spirit and ability to fight back from any position. No better time to find out just what that spirit is all about.
A passing thought — there is really no substitute for real pace, and the sight of the four SA quicks going at 145-plus, on very good lengths, late into the day reinforces my discomfort at India opting for trick bowlers instead of quality seaming quicks. Bumrah for his limited overs ability was a bad pick; Pandya was a case of hedging bets and picking someone who bowls a bit and bats a bit; the captain’s seeming lack of confidence in his lead spinner merely exacerbates problems that began when India’s think tank sat down to pick its bowling options.
Tomorrow morning should be a great session — the inform Rohit, and the always capable Pujara, against the best attack in the world on a wicket that will aid their pace. Join me then; adios for now.
Lovely sight, watching two quality quicks bowling in harness. Great lengths, tending to full; line almost relentlessly fourth/fifth stump; just enough movement to create doubt. Most of the movement is away from the right hander; haven’t seen either Steyn or Philander bring one back in yet.
But as I was saying that, Philander gives way to Morne Morkel, and Virat Kohli goes. That was brilliant bowling — the very first ball of his first over, quick, good length, the height and power of Morkel making the ball climb awkwardly, and seam away enough to take the outside edge through to the keeper. 27/3 and South Africa doing unto India…
Dhawan out: The words batsman’s error has been overused today, but then I never knew that it made sense to save it for a really egregious example. Dhawan blots his copybook big time with a brain fade — Steyn was three quarters in length, not short enough to pull but Dhawan went for it anyway, put it straight up in the air — so high, and so straight, that there were six fielders who could have caught it. Steyn called for it, caught it, and has his comeback wicket gift-wrapped for him. What on earth was Dhawan thinking, though — assuming he *was* thinking? This is the closing session of day one; India is ahead of the game in terms of time; there is zero urgency at this point about run-scoring, and there was certainly no need to manufacture shots. Oh well — that is two wickets in two overs, and India rapidly letting go its hard won advantage in the field.
Vijay out: For a batsman who knows where his off stump is, that was a dud shot by Vijay. Three quarter length from Philander, moving the ball away from a fourth stump line. Vijay leaning well forward to play at a ball he didn’t need to; gets the thick outside edge and the SA slip cordon is not prone to grassing those, particularly catches that come at a nice, comfortable chest height. India lose its first, for 16, and again, though it was highly competent quick bowling, you had to say it was batsman’s error that led to his downfall.
Quiet start by the Indians against Philander and Steyn, both of whom are bowling the very full lengths at close to top pace. Neither getting appreciable movement just now — with the caveat that Philander never looks for exaggerated movement anyway; he is more Glenn McGrath in his focus on moving the ball just a micron this way or that off length.
Dhawan played two sweet shots — the checked off drive to the good length ball on the off, getting a good stride in; then the checked square push to the ball outside line of off and a bit on the shorter side, taking the ball on the rise to find the four through the point region. Murali Vijay, at the other end, focussed on only playing what he absolutely has to, and leaving everything else. One leave seemed a bit dodgy, because the length was full and Vijay offered no shot, but that ended with SA wasting a review, so all well thus far.
Morkel gone, SA all out: 13 balls. That is what it took for Ashwin to knock over two tail end wickets, his second being Morkel, LBW to the one going through straight and quick on a full length.
Straight, quick, full length — there is a whole story packed into those four words. Just as there is a story of missed opportunity packed into the post-tea session, when we persisted with seam bowling, at half-pitch lengths, and allowed Maharaj and Rabada to add 37, then Steyn and Rabada to add another 22 before we thought to bring the spinner on and end things quick.
288 all out South Africa — India would have taken that at the start of the day’s play, so on balance you had to say the first innings honours belong to the visiting side, thanks largely to that superlative opening spell by Bhuvi. But — and this is what you can’t quantify with a scoreboard — it also represents a missed opportunity. If India had maintained that early intensity and bundled the Proteas out for under 250, the pressure would have shifted to the bowling side, and India would be in the happy position of looking to bat, slow, careful and deep, and try and put on the kind of first innings totals that win matches.
Now? With 287 to make to equal the Proteas, and four world class fast bowlers to face? It is one uphill fight or, looked at positively, it is the test the Indian team has been saying it wanted during its brilliant home run of 2017.
Rabada out: Finally, in the 70th over, Ashwin gets a bowl. And with his third ball, he gets one to go through with the arm, from a three-quarter length, Rabada flashes, fails to read the armer, gets the under edge and Saha holds well. #justsaying
To add to the point made below about the short stuff, we now have Bumrah bowling — the one guy whose forte, and the reason he is rated the best in limited overs, is the ability to bowl very full, into the blockhole, at will.
So guess what length he is bowling here? Mid-pitch, more or less.
Amazing the way narratives are formed. The two Indian seamers, Shami and Pandya, overdoing the bouncers just now and in the commentary box I hear folks, who really should know better, celebrating this as a sign of “Virat Kohli’s India”, and saying that the aggressive Kohli always promises to give back as good as he gets, so this stream of bouncers at the tail is a sign of that.
Really? At sub-140 speeds? Fast bowlers don’t just bounce tailenders — you can expect the Indian top order to get a fair share of such stuff too. But that is not the point, really — I would expect savvy commentators to point out that the job of the bowlers, with the tail exposed, is to go full, straight, and knock them over, not to make some kind of notional point while the runs continue to tick over and the innings is prolonged way more than it should be.
Do we even get the point of cricket any more, or do we imagine that the game is just another tool of jingoistic point-making to little or no purpose?
Mercifully, Bhuvi comes back into the attack in place of Pandya, and begins with the fuller lengths you need to be bowling on this track. In passing, and just to underline this point, watch when SA bowls — you can bet money that both Philander and Rabada in particular will bowl the very full lengths more often than not.
To state the obvious — an overused weapon is a wasted weapon.
Maharaj out: Add one more to the list of odd dismissals. Keshav Maharaj pushes one from Shami to mid on and comes charging down, demanding his partner run. Rabada — who has been batting fluently enough that there was no reason to suppose he needed shielding — says no straight away, but Maharaj was an awful long time turning and retracing his steps; Ashwin at mid on picks up and throws the stumps down at the striker’s end and that ends a fine innings of 35 by the SA number 8. And what is more, the wicket came at a time when the fielding side was beginning to look a bit clueless about how to break through; the 8th wicket partnership had added 37 runs in quick time, without looking in much trouble at any stage. Again, error or no, India will take it; that wicket brings Steyn to the crease and there is just Morkel left to come; with 26 overs left to play in the day.
*sigh* Soft ball, India persisting with seam, neither of the tail-enders looking particularly bothered (There was a picture perfect leave by Maharaj, and a top quality lofted on drive for six by Rabada, that underline how much at ease these guys are against what is pretty much medium pace). Kohli needed to start this session with spin at one end and an attacking field; right now, the game is slipping into a holding pattern which is not what any fielding side wants when it has the opposition seven down for not very much.
Final session just starting, and the thing you need to take note of is the over-rate. 53 overs in the first two sessions is a good 7-10 overs below the pace. You could lay the blame for it on the fact that a spinner bowled only 5 of those 53 overs, but hey — it is not like we had Michael Holding at one end and Shoaib Akthar at the other; these guys don’t do overlong run ups. Along with the slip catching, this is something India might want to keep an eye on; a persisting habit of slow over rates can see its captain sitting out a game sooner than later.
On another note, I am old enough to remember a time when India called on its spinners to take out the lower half of any bottom order. Here, Ashwin bowls five overs, doesn’t do badly at all, is just building up a rhythm, gets tonked for one six when he over-flights one ball, and Kohli goes right, thanks, that will do — and he gets Hardik Pandya on. How times change!
The way these two are playing, I’d have Ashwin on at one end for a longer spell — even in that brief spell, it was noticeable that neither batsman could read the arm ball at all well.
That meanwhile is the end of the second session: 123 runs in 27 overs for four wickets, far better than India expected, and SA should spend the break ruing some fairly ordinary stroke selection by its batting stars, particularly by AB and Faf who, in the first session, looked to be really turning things around.
Could have been worse, though: Maharaj is on 23, which is 23 runs that Dhawan drop has cost the fielding side.
Philander out, Shami strikes: In form or not, Shami usually bowls way better with the older ball. Brought in to relieve Bhuvi, the seamer shows why. The first ball of his second over is three quarter length, coming in off the seam. Philander leaves, trusting to the even bounce of the pitch — and he is vindicated as the ball sails six inches over the top of off. The next ball is fuller; Philander appeared to have read the length too late. It looked like he contemplated a leave, realized his error late, pushed defensively at the last minute, and the incoming delivery ricocheted off the inner edge, onto the back pad, and then onto the top of the stumps. A decent Test delivery, another wicket out of the blue, and that is the last of the real batting talent SA has, gone.
The odd thing about the Indian team’s slip catching? Back when I was a teenager, we had first Satwender Singh, a Ranji player and then S Venkatraghavan, a national player, as our coaches in successive years. Both were big on fielding, both insisted that every player in the school team should develop all-round fielding skills, so all of us had to take our turn during slip practice.
The first thing they drilled into us? Stay low, and only rise with the ball — that is to say, don’t get up too soon. These guys do the exact opposite — if you see that Dhawan drop, you find all three slips are standing more or less erect, well before the ball gets to the cordon.
The second thing they teach us? Don’t snatch at the ball. Dhawan did just that. And alongside that lesson, this: cupped hands, behind the line of the ball, let the ball come to you and settle in the cup. Dhawan’s top hand was pointing at the ground, not behind the ball.
In other words, that was an object demonstration of how not to catch at slips. What baffles me is, how the hell are these guys playing at this level without learning the basics every schoolboy is taught? I know it is hard to become an outstanding slip fielder — there are very few of those around in the international game today. But it is not that hard to become competent, really; competent enough to take catches that are waist high and coming straight towards you.
The first three wickets owed to brilliant bowling in helpful conditions; the next three have owed to a combination of discipline by the bowlers, and indiscipline by the batsmen.
And then the biggest weakness of the Indian fielding side comes into play: Bhuvi outside off, some seam movement, Keshav Maharaj takes a poke at it, the ball goes nicely at waist height towards the slip cordon and Shikhar Dhawan, at third slip, snatches at a ball that was going to second, and spills it.
That was schoolboy stuff, and it shows that after all this time, after all the evidence to underline the vulnerability, this is the one area of its out cricket that India hasn’t been able to work on. And the problem is, when traveling and playing in conditions suited to swing and seam and bounce, it is the slips that are vital to giving the bowlers teeth and, frankly, India’s slip cordon is a disaster.
Bhuvi looks frustrated. Well he might — that would have been his 5th wicket; it would have been SA’s fourth of the second session, it would have ratcheted up the pressure on the Proteas even more.
de Kock out: The story of this session is about good batsmen throwing it away, seems like. Bhuvi sent one down straight as a string outside off, slightly angled around the 4th stump line. The softer Kokkaburra has begun to stay on the lower side — particularly given that the Indian seamers are not real pacy nor do they hit the deck hard. The one shot you don’t attempt at times like that is the push with no foot movement, no body behind the line — which is exactly what de Kock does, a tentative poke that feathers the edge and goes through to Saha. Good on Bhuvi to hold that tight line, but really, that ball neither bounced nor moved appreciably — it was the first time in this innings de Kock played without any movement of the feet, and it’s done for him. And now India is into the tail, and has Ashwin fresh and beginning to bowl well.
Despite those two wickets going down, the last 10 overs have produced 62 runs — thanks to a flurry of strokeplay by de Kock *and* Philander. Nine fours between them, in a partnership of 41 runs off just 5 overs, and every one has been a stroke of delight. Batting really looks easy now, and the Proteas are cashing in, seemingly unconcerned that another wicket will put the Indian bowlers among the tail.
Ashwin finally gets a bowl, in the 42nd over of the innings, and de Kock greeted him with a gorgeous late cut to the very first ball, a slider bowled to the left hander by the spinner going around the wicket (over the wicket from the batsman’s point of view).
They’ve brought up the 50-run partnership, in just 39 balls. On day one of a Test match!
de Kock followed up that string of three fours against Bumrah with two classy strokes against Bhuvi when the lead seamer came back replacing Pandya. The first, all wrist — letting the ball go across him, then dropping his wrists to guide it past the slip cordon to third man, all touch and timing; the next, to bring up drinks at the end of the first hour after lunch, as classy a cover drive as you can expect to watch. That is drinks and again, India have the session, thanks to those two strikes, both the product of batsman’s error but India will take that.
The surprise of the session? The ball is now 39 overs old, I’d have expected Ashwin to have a go at least five-six overs ago but he is still ambling around in the outfield, which is some strange.
Quinton de Kock just played three shots that would have been appropriate if SA were 154/1 — a lovely straight drive, a square drive to the backward point region, then a lovely cover drive, all off Bumrah, off successive balls.
It’s not the ease of those strokes, this early in his innings, that catches the eye though — it is that those shots reinforce the growing feeling that this pitch, true to Newlands’ character, has begun to ease off after lunch and is getting better to bat on. Couple that with the fact that they are playing with Kokkaburra balls, which get soft and the seam less prominent after about 30-35 overs, and this is the best period for batting. Which is exactly why the loss of Faf and AB, both to less than ideal shots, should hurt SA and make India feel they won the lottery — those wickets were against the run of play.
Faf Out!: That was one heck of an eventful over. Hardik Pandya got one to jag back just a bit from outside off, took Faf on the pads. India reviewed, and must have been bummed it was “umpire’s call” — the ball was impacting in line, hitting top of the stumps, but that “top of the stumps” bit trumped the review.
A ball later, though, a relatively innocuous ball, on the short side, going straight through around 5th stump and Faf cuts, a slight bit of extra bounce finds the upper edge and Saha holds. That was a lapse of concentration from the captain, pure and simple, and now SA really behind the eight ball.
Faf gets 50: Very hard to get noticed when AB is batting at the other end but Faf du Plessis, after a fairly uncertain start (for which you can’t blame him, since Bhuvi at the time had the ball on a string), settled in nicely, gave AB the strike to the extent possible, eased himself into the game and has looked more assured as time went on. Gets to his 50 with a square driven four when Bumrah goes short and wide — very vital innings, the captain’s, and he looks increasingly assured now.
AB Out: And what do you know, the bowler who looked least likely to break through, does. Bumrah does what he often does in limited overs in his second spell — went very wide on the crease (and mercifully had enough of his boot behind the line), angled it in full and straight just outside that off. Airy drive by AB, not really covering the line and getting to the pitch, and he inside-edges onto the off stump. AB had played a similarly airy drive in the previous over, both strokes seemed a product of the fact that the Indians were drying up his run-scoring opportunities. In any case, the breakthrough coming at just the right time; before this partnership had settled back into their stride.
Quinton de Kock at the wicket makes this the last of the recognized batting pairs; India must sense that this is their opportunity — slice through another wicket, and you are into Philander and the tail.
A statistic the Indian think tank will want to look at is the 20 fours AB and Faf have scored between them, in a 110-run stand at the time of writing this. Four of those fours came in one Bhuvi over when AB decided to try and hit the bowler off his line, but the rest have been a graphic indication of how often the Indian seamers have erred by going straight, and/or bowling both sides of the wicket. One of the keys when you have the opposition under pressure is drying up easy runs, and that is just one more area where the Indians weren’t on top of their game thus far.
Post-Lunch: Bumrah to begin is a bit of a surprise, but India opting to take the third slip out this early in the second session is an even bigger one; unexpected from a team that likes to play aggressively. And sure enough, off the first ball of the second over, Pandya’s greater bounce finds the edge, and it goes at catchable height through where third slip should have been. A breakthrough that early in the session would have put the pressure totally on SA — that was a bad move, really, to dilute the slip cordon. Also, the off cordon is standing a few paces too deep — which means there are runs for pushes, for batsmen as good as this. Not sure I like India’s approach at the start of this session, frankly.
LUNCH: 107/3 in 26 overs. India owned the first hour; South Africa the second. On balance, a team in home conditions winning the toss and batting first does not think it is going good when it loses three wickets in the opening session, so from that point of view, this is India’s session by a good distance.
On the other hand, India will feel that its bowlers, barring Bhuvi, let slip a chance. To have a batting side like SA down 12/3 inside 5 overs is not the sort of start you get every day; when such opportunities come along you want to take advantage.
AB and Faf du Plessis look well set, and AB in particular is dangerous, being the sort of batsman who can take the pitch and the bowling out of the equation. India needs a great start after lunch — break this partnership, and the Proteas with an overlong tail will come under enormous pressure.
A couple of interesting points: Not sure I got why Kohli preferred to give Shami a second spell, rather than go for Pandya; equally, not so sure why Ashwin has been held back throughout the morning session; surely it was worth giving him an over or two particularly before Faf was fully set with his footwork?
Anyway. Time for a shower and coffee. See you guys later.
Kohli, with the clock ticking down to lunch, tries a Hail Mary and goes back to Bhuvi, who should be somewhat stiff after that 7-over opening spell. Bumrah the bowler replaced. And — speaks to the class of the guy — BK is on line, on length, from ball one, and getting movement off the deck even though this time he is bowling into the wind. Thing though is, the two batsmen have had time to get set, get their feet moving, so there is less tentativeness, more positivity, about their play just now. To really get a grip on this game, India needs to break this partnership, at the very latest soon after lunch.
Double change, actually, with Hardik Pandya taking over from Shami at the other end. Interesting start to his over — bounce when HP banged the first ball in at three quarter length, then the full yorker forcing Faf to scramble a defensive push. And good pace, so more often than not the ball is hitting the bat before the batsman is quite ready for him.
This passage of play showing just how valuable it is to have an attacking third bowler option. Once Bhuvi bowled himself out, the pressure is right off South Africa. Neither Shami nor Bumrah able to apply consistent pressure, with the result that Faf is now finding his feet and moving nicely into his shots; AB has rocketed to 50 off just 55 balls, and from an Indian point of view, you can’t shake the feeling that all the good work of the first five overs, which reduced SA to 12/3, is now being dissipated.
92/3 on the first morning by a home side that chose to bat first is, you would say, good work by the bowling side — but the point of getting an opponent on the mat is to put your foot on the throat and keep it there, and it is that kind of aggressive firepower India is lacking, forcing Kohli to give extended spells to two seamers who aren’t doing anything worth writing about.
Interesting — post drinks, Shami bowling from the end Bhuvi used, with the breeze at his back, finally settling into some sort of rhythm. His pace is up a few notches, his line is far more controlled down that channel, and he is getting the odd ball to lift off length. Not much in the way of lateral movement yet, but at least this spell is tight and controlled, creating the odd surprise for the batsmen and preventing them from really changing gears. Too early to talk of Bumrah the Test bowler — the thing about him for me is that he is a bit of a one-trick pony, which works in limited overs formats because the batsmen are coming at you, and hence more error-prone, but I am not as sure that in a Test format, where the batsmen have the option to play you out, he is likely to be as effective. But like I said — way too early to call his Test caliber.
Post drinks, India gives Bhuvi a rest and goes back to Shami, who is as unimpressive this time around as he was in his first spell. No movement worth talking about; line oscillating from 5th stump to middle and leg; too short too often, unable to get the length fuller. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Bumrah getting some tap, with Faf driving him square, then straighter through mid off, off successive boundaries. Faf’s feet moving better now, good stride forward, and I guess it helps that Bumrah only brings the ball in, so neither right-hander has to worry about the one leaving him.
Drinks: End of a first hour that sets the series up brilliantly. Bhuvi worked hard through that extended seven-over spell, testing AB with movement and Faf with the fuller length that aimed for the pad of a batsman prone to playing leg side and occasionally falling over. Bumrah, in his two overs, got pace, lift and very pronounced movement off the seam; he is still working out the ideal length, though, and IMO needs to be a touch fuller for his brand of bowling to be really effective. For the South African batsmen, a fairly grim battle to survive — 17 of the 42 runs scored for three wickets came in that one sudden AB de Villiers assault off Bhuvi, but otherwise it has been grim work.
Bhuvi versus AB: BK’s sixth over is why I love Tests. He found Faf on strike, and promptly straightened his line onto off and a fuller length, looking to beat the batsman who has a distinct leg side bias in his strokeplay. But it was when AB got back on strike that the game lit up. Bhuvi went 5th stump, a touch short, asking AB if he wanted to go on slashing as he did in the previous over; AB shaped to play a shot, found the ball jump at him, took a hand off the handle and managed to control it down. The very next ball, Bhuvi got the fuller length, brought the line closer to off, squared AB up and beat his outside edge with movement away from the batsman, late. Lovely to watch, this kind of contest within the larger context.
Bhuvi’s 5th over: Very unimpressive opening spell by Shami, stark contrast to the way Bhuvi has been bowling. Interesting start to the fifth over of BK, with AB de Villiers throwing his bat at everything: a drive smeared square through point without being fully in control, then another through cover and when Bhuvi dropped a fraction shorter, a flaying upper cut over the gully region to third man;the over ending with de Villiers going back in his crease and deliberately lofting over the point region. Four fours, and more to the point the sudden aggression forcing Bhuvi to rethink his lines and lengths. Sets up an extremely interesting phase of play. 17 in the over, four fours and a single off the last ball with a push to point; the fielders were back on their heels thanks to that onslaught, and a bit late reacting to the pushed single.
Amla Out: The dream spell continues. Bhuvi, bowling with the wind at his back, was wide of off the first two balls, then began to adjust, bringing his line straighter to that 4th/5th stump channel. With his third ball he got it almost right — in the channel, on length, seaming away late, but Amla had just that bit of extra time to leave. Ball four, identical; Amla left and must have had a moment of panic when the ball darted back in, instead, and flashed past off. That set up ball five — same line and length as ball four, Amla uncertain whether it was coming in or leaving him, pushes at it tentatively. Ball leaves the batsman, finds the edge, and Saha is back in business. This has to be one of the best opening spells by an Indian quick in recent memory — probing, thoughtful, and incredibly disciplined. 13/3 South Africa after choosing to bat first — who woulda thought?
Markram out: Bhuvi is bowling brilliantly here. His length is on the side of full, he is moving the ball at will both ways. This makes things tough for the batsmen, who are never sure which way the ball is going; that forces them to play half-cock, address the ball as late as they can.
That tentativeness accounts for Markram. He got a couple going away; got behind one that was coming in and punched through mid off but even there, found the inward movement more than he thought — he got the four only because he had gone through with the shot. Bhuvi adjusted, went a bit wider of the off stump, brought it in, Markram looked for the ball to straighten outside off, played the wrong line, and was trapped in front of off and middle.
Great start for India, but the fielding side will have loved it even more if Shami showed some control and class. For now, he is all over the place, bowling both sides of the wicket and, very noticeably, not getting the kind of late movement Bhuvi has been finding, so the pressure is coming off a bit at Shami’s end. 12/2 as I write this.
Elgar Out: That didn’t take long. A very ordinary ball to start the Test with, then another down the leg side, not the kind of precision you expect. But that third ball, though — the first ball in the over that was on line just around off; Elgar figured based on the previous two balls that it was going to come in to him but Bhuvi Kumar made it go away from the left hander, and found the edge through to Saha. Elgar was SA’s batting star through 2017 — huge wicket for India.
And then he gets it spot on, the very next ball. Fuller, as was the ball to Elgar, perfectly in line around off and moving away off the seam. Hashim Amla had no clue, very lucky not to touch the first ball he was facing through to the keeper, and an action replay off the last ball, again Amla dealing in luck after being squared up and beaten around the outside edge.
One thing for sure, this first over should put doubt in the batting team’s minds.
1.45 PM: So that post didn’t have much of a shelf life. India’s team in batting order is Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Wriddhiman Saha, Hardik Pandya, R Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah
First up, a fit Shikhar back. I personally like watching Rahul bat; I think he is the player for the long term, and has the game for all conditions, but India clearly punting on the current form of Dhawan. Then there is the vice captain, Rahane, benched for Rohit Sharma — a punt on form over proven class in foreign conditions. (One of the things this does is take the best slip/gully fielder India has out of the equation. The seam bowling lineup is equally interesting: Hardik, Shami, Bhuvi and Jasprit, which means that India is going in without both the experienced quicks, Ishant and Umesh, which is the real surprise here.
It is an interesting selection, and the bowling attack will be tested right from the get-go, with South Africa opting for first strike on winning the toss. The Proteas have gone in with Dale Steyn over Phehlukwayo, and de Villiers is in the side as well, likely at the expense of Bavuma. Elgar, Markram, Hashim Amla, de Villiers, Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock are a strong batting lineup, with Vernon Philander in at 7 as a handy bat; the bowling looks equally good with Philander, Rabada, Morkel and Steyn forming as good a pace quartet as we’ve seen in a long time, and Maharaj for spin with Quinton de Kock filling in if needed.
Both teams have gone in with five regular bowlers; particularly good for India to take that punt overseas, where past teams have tended to play safe and bat deep, putting in a regular batsman at six. This means either Hardik or Ashwin at six, with Saha at eight being given the responsibility of batting with the tail.
Kohli at the toss points to the grass and a surface slightly on the softer side thanks to the watering, and says he would have bowled first anyway. Faf on the other hand says the wicket will be soft-ish on day one and harden under the sun over the next four days, and that influenced his choice to bat first (softer wicket, ergo less bounce and carry, which blunts his quick quartet a bit; equally, softer wicket and less bounce and carry could help batsmen settle in and look to bat deep).
Not quite the Indian team I would have gone with, but personal preferences aside, this is a thoughtful, courageous selection — and the surprise picks, Sharma over Rahane, Bumrah over Umesh, Shami over Ishant, could still prove me wrong. And that is it — it’s all locked and loaded and in minutes, the most interesting Test series we’ve had in a long while begins. Here’s to the contest.
11.15 AM: It’s almost axiomatic that any discussion about a Test match between two good teams devolves, at least initially, to a read of the pitch. I have, for obvious reasons, no first-hand idea what Newlands is going to offer up; like you, I can only go with straws in the wind.
We know, for instance, that the area is suffering from intense drought and water is in short supply. Newlands curator Evan Flint discussed the issues with Cricinfo, and this is the bit that catches the eye:
Luckily, Newlands has borehole-water supply but groundsman Evan Flint told ESPNcricinfo it has still been a tricky preparatory period. “With the pitch, we’ve been able to carry on watering it as usual every day with borehole water. But the outfield, we’ve only watered it twice a week so it’s a little bit drier and maybe not as lush as we would like it. The challenge is that we need to leave live grass on the wicket, thin grass, so that there is pace, but we want to make sure the ball doesn’t grip and turn. Ideally, what we need is a little bit of rain in the morning and then sun in the afternoon and I don’t know how many days we will get that for.”
The intent, says Flint, is to produce a wicket that is green and hard, with live grass. But what interests me is the corollary: that the outfield will not be as well watered, therefore not as lush as Newlands usually is. In other words, a relatively hard and abrasive surface, which raises the interesting possibility of reverse swing playing a larger role than usual at the venue, coupled with the spinning possibilities of a rapidly abrading ball. Also, if the pitch hasn’t received as much water as it usually does, there is the possibility of it dusting up towards the fourth and fifth days of play, and putting spinners in business.
All of which makes the choice of playing XI interesting. For the batsmen, the biggest challenge is playing against muscle memory: In India, you are used to batting with your hands at waist-level, or lower, as part of your initial approach to the ball. On a bouncing deck, you need to start with the hands higher, around the solar plexus level at the least. How well, and how rapidly, the Indians make that adjustment will determine the team’s fortunes in a short series that incorporates no time for acclimatization (a point Virat Kohli made with unusual vim for an Indian captain).
Picking a playing XI without a first hand feel for playing conditions is a fool’s errand — but if I had to pick based on the little information from Flint and others, I’d opt for a lineup that reads: Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Cheteswar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Ravi Ashwin, Saha, Ravi Jadeja, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Bhuvi Kumar.
The big punt here is Ashwin at six, and the fact that with a lineup like this you have to want numbers six, seven and eight to deliver at least 120-150 runs, most of it batting alongside the tail. The temptation will be to bolster the batting with Rohit Sharma at six, but that leaves the team one bowler short and makes the choice one between Ashwin and Jadeja. The former needs some kind of assistance from the wicket; the latter has the ability, with his wicket to wicket lines, to take the wicket out of the equation. Then again, there seems to be some question mark about Jadeja’s health so if he is out for physical reasons, do you make the best of a bad job and bat Rohit at six, or do you do the brave thing and bring in Kuldeep Yadav, who is your best bet for a wicket-taking spinner particularly in the first innings?
A point to keep in mind is that South Africa have a good batting lineup, and are playing in familiar conditions — therefore, go in with four bowlers and you could end up overburdening the quicks at the start of a very intense series.
It’s a hard call to make to go in with just five regular batsmen, but it is the one I’d make if I want to give myself a chance of going one up early in the series. It will be interesting to see how the team lines up at the start — and how the batsmen, who had a dream run in home conditions through 2017, stack against arguably the best all-round pace attack in contemporary cricket.
Of passing – but potentially crucial — interest is the nature of India’s slip cordon. Unusually for a side that has in recent times shown a willingness to work on its processes, India’s slip catching is pathetic, and this blunts the ability of the quick bowlers to strike hard and often. (It’s not just the catches that go down — if the bowler has no confidence in his slips, he tends to try and change his lines and lengths, look for other ways to get wickets, and this lack of confidence preys on the mind.)
We’ll know, soon enough. Meanwhile, I am off to get some work done, clear the decks before the game begins. See you back here around 2 PM IST; I’ll keep adding thoughts, as and when, to this post in reverse chronological order.