Writing in Cricinfo, Siddharth Monga puts the focus where it belongs: on the personnel choices India made, and its negative impact on the course of the first day’s play.
Despite the start provided by Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the answer lay in the run rate at which South Africa went in difficult batting conditions, which has left India an immeasurably long way back from a stutter with the bat. Mohammed Shami began with the same problems he had in Australia in 2014-15: bowling the Asia line, on the stumps. He was also too short too often, which is the length that hits the stumps in Asia.
A bigger culprit was Jasprit Bumrah, a shocking selection in the squad – forget the XI – given he has not played first-class cricket in a year. Bumrah is an intelligent young bowler. He has a hyper-flexible arm, which makes his variations difficult to pick. He is the best quick going around in limited-overs cricket. His coaches, his mentors, his team-mates all talk about how quick a learner he is. He is, however, not that quick a learner that he will rock up in South Africa, having not bowled more than 10 overs a day in more than a year, not having had to work out a batsman not under pressure of scoring a run a ball, and five net sessions later become the messiah to save India.
Hard to disagree with the above, and with the rest of Monga’s analysis. Arising from which, a few random thoughts after watching day one:
Test cricket is for specialists. And the corollary to that is, when you pick specialists, use specialists. Ravi Ashwin is in the team for a reason, and that reason is not that he is a good fielder at deep fine leg. To rotate among your seam bowlers throughout the afternoon and most of the evening sessions, despite the clear evidence of your own senses, was half-baked thinking; to not use Ashwin till late into the final session, after a brief five-over spell in which he did little wrong, was sheer pig-headedness. It indicates a captain, and a team, incapable of going beyond prefabricated lines of thought, and reacting in the moment to events on the ground.
Never fall for your own hype. We have fallen into the habit of talking up our “aggression” — and that is not a bad thing per se, to go in with a mindset that you are there to compete, to win. But aggression is not just about mouthing off; nor is it about instructing your bowlers to bowl endless bouncers at popgun pace — it is about seizing control of the game, and retaining that control. An example of true aggression came in the first hour itself when, with SA reeling, AB de Villiers took it on himself to change the narrative in one dramatic over where he flayed Bhuvi Kumar for 17 runs, including four superlative fours. Given the way Bhuvi was bowling at the time, it was a high-risk strategy — but it was the right strategy; hanging around under such testing conditions was never going to get you anywhere. So AB picked the aggressive option, and then backed his skill and nerve to pull it off.
None of this is to diss this team — after an over-long home season, to go to South Africa and face arguably the best all-round team in the business today, on their home grounds, was always going to be a fraught assignment; more so with the BCCI, clueless as always about what it takes to play Test cricket at the highest level, creating a schedule that left no time for match prep. (It is, by the way, all well and good for Kohli and Shastri to talk of net sessions as being better than match play — but the nets is no place to figure out the right lines and lengths to bowl in alien conditions).
The thing though is, the Indian team is heading into the toughest year it has had in a long time, studded with the three toughest assignments in international cricket: playing South Africa, England and Australia, back to back, away from home. They need to reboot, rethink, and they need to do it fast — and they need to begin with their team selection.
Which brings me to today. I have a rough schedule — will be watching the first session, but then taking a break and heading off for a meeting I can’t put off; then back again shortly after the tea break. So I’ll stay put on Twitter since it is a bit difficult to split my time between that and this blog, and I’ll thread my thoughts into a stream. Follow along there, regular service here resumes tomorrow.