As India’s batting line-up was throwing it away in the morning session, no one was surprised or worried. After all, this was the sort of day one that many of us were expecting. In the first Test of the series, with the visiting batters yet to truly come to terms with the conditions, one would have expected the home bowlers to take advantage of the conditions and pick up more wickets, instead India made batting look easy thanks largely to KL Rahul.
But the reason no one was surprised or worried was also because India had already made it past 300 and it meant the bowling attack can truly come into its own.
Since 2018, India have bowled out the opposition in 68 out of 77 completed innings in Test cricket, that amounts to an amazing 88.31% of times. They perform well regardless of the runs India puts on board but become even deadlier when they have runs to play with.
Highest frequency of bowling out the opponents in Tests since 2018:
88.31% - India (68/77)— Statistician Rajneesh Gupta / @rgcricket
80.77% - New Zealand (42/52)
80.77% - South Africa (42/52)
79.66% - Australia (47/59)
76.47% - Pakistan (39/51)
75.00% - England (69/92)
The true strength of this attack though is how they hunt as a unit. Bowlers, like batters, can have off days but when you can count on a teammate, it makes a big difference.
On the whole, they are always at you, always keeping you on your toes and that makes the difference. The graphic below shows the difference between what South Africa did on Day 1 and how India went about things with the new ball.
While KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal could leave a lot of deliveries alone because the SA pacers were a bit too wide, India’s attack made SA’s batters play and reaped the rewards.
Jasprit Bumrah struck in the first over to send back SA skipper Dean Elgar but then just in his sixth over, the pacer twisted his ankle while in his follow through and then had to leave the field for a while.
Losing your best bowler is never easy but India made short work of the predicament thanks to the brilliance of Mohammed Shami. The 31-year-old, who wasn’t given the new ball, was on the mark right away.
Keegan Petersen and Aiden Markram had steadied the ship but Shami struck just three balls after the lunch break. It was in the channel and seamed back into Petersen, who pushed at it. The inside edge went back into the stumps.
But then, just a little later, Shami produced the delivery of the innings to send back Markram. It pitched on a length, looked like it would come in with the angle but then seamed away late, beat the outside edge to hit the top of off-stump.
It was the kind of delivery that bowling coaches love; the kind they hope their bowlers can bowl in a match and Shami is fast making a habit of it. He is in the corridor all the time and from there even the slightest movement can get a wicket.
In the last three years, Shami has taken 58 wickets in 16 Tests at an average of 21.17. That is more wickets than Bumrah (55 wickets at 23.80) in the same numbers of Tests. Only Ashwin has more wickets and a better average – 85 wickets at an average of 19.29 – but he has played 17 Tests in the period.
Much has been said about how Shami’s skiddy deliveries make life difficult for the batters but it is his understanding of the length he needs to bowl and the consistency to bowl it that makes him a class apart.
“Test match isn’t any rocket science. If you are a Test level bowler, you should know your lengths and also have an idea of conditions and adapt accordingly,” Shami said after the match.
Against South Africa in Centurion, according to a graphic shown during the broadcast, 39% of his deliveries were a good length, 58% were short and just 3% were full. He kept batters on the back foot most of the time and pushed one slightly up, tempting them into the drive. The plan sounds simple but to stick with it requires discipline and Shami showed that he had plenty of that.
He followed up the first two wickets by removing Wiann Mulder (12), Temba Bavuma (52) and Kagiso Rabada (25) to claim his sixth five-wicket haul in Tests. It also enabled him to get to his 200th Test wicket making him just the fifth Indian pacer to get to the mark.
South Africa’s lower order put up a good fight but at the end of the day, India had worked their way to a vital 146-run lead and with the pitch likely to offer even uneven bounce over the remaining two days, one can count on Shami and Co to have an even greater say in the proceedings, weather permitting.
For now, half of the job is done but this Indian attack never rests easy. They don’t quite know how to.