Honestly, on paper, this South Africa team has no business beating India at the Wanderers. They are a side in transition, the batting has lost its greats (Dean Elgar with an average of 39 is their top batter), the bowling department lacks the consistency and class that made it fearsome in the past, and they were coming into the second Test on the back of a demoralising defeat at their ‘fortress’ Centurion.
But sport, like life, is something that has a way of setting you right just when you seem to be getting a little too big for your boots. As India head coach Rahul Dravid said in the press conference after South Africa won the second Test by seven wickets, India did not take the hosts lightly... they did not get complacent but rather, this was a case of South Africa raising their game with the series on the line.
Elgar showed that in tough conditions, averages count for little especially when compared to heart. He took blows on the neck, the shoulder, the arm, the midriff, and the hands, but would somehow be switched on in time for the next ball. His concentration did not waver. He did not give it away and he wanted to be there at the end... as he was.
India, on their part, didn’t do much wrong. There were a few small missteps here and there but that is only to be expected in a match. However, that is all it took for South Africa to draw level in the series.
Still, there were certain areas in which South Africa gained a vital edge:
The height factor
The ball just seemed to misbehave a lot more when India were batting in their third innings than when South Africa came out in the final innings of the Test. That may have simply been because of the height factor.
The South African attack is dominated by tall pacemen – Marco Jansen is 2.06m tall, Lungi Ngidi is 1.93m, Duanne Olivier is 1.80m and Kagiso Rabada comes in at 1.91m, and perhaps their height contributed to the uneven bounce that they managed to extract. It was a natural variation that India had no answer to. Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami are 1.78m tall, Shardul Thakur is 1.75m and Mohammed Siraj is 1.82m tall (and he was injured).
“It just felt like the ball seemed to misbehave a little bit more for them, and that could be [because of the] fact of the height,” Dravid said during his post-match press conference. “On up-and-down wickets sometimes just having that extra height might tend to make a little bit of a difference, so it just felt for us [that] the balls didn’t misbehave as much.”
He added: “Some did, of course, there were some balls that did misbehave even for us, but probably not as many as it did for them. I guess they have that natural height advantage. We are bowlers who tend to pitch the ball up a little bit more, we look for swing, we kiss the surface a little bit more.”
Make it big
The pitches in the series haven’t been easy on the batters. There has always been something for the bowlers and the batters have never quite seemed comfortable. So when a batter does get in, he needs to make it count. KL Rahul did it for India in the first Test and the visitors went on to win. Dean Elgar did it for South Africa in the second Test and the hosts won. If one batter can stick around in the middle, partnerships mushroom around him and that is the difference in the end.
“We have to certainly look to seize a few key moments and certainly when you get those partnerships, maybe make them a little bit longer,” said Dravid. “We could have probably got 60-70 runs more in that first innings. Probably that could have made a significant difference to this game and we would like to bat a bit better and need to keep improving,” he put across his point as India have now crossed 300 only once in four innings.
Dravid added; “Maybe some of the guys who got starts could have converted into hundreds and that was the difference in the first Test as we had Rahul in the first game, who had got a hundred for us and we ended up on the winning side. And in the second game, they had someone (Elgar) scoring 96 and they ended up on the winning side.”
As we have seen so often in the recent past, the onus will be on India’s batters to step up in Cape Town. Perhaps the return of Virat Kohli will help but it must be said that Hanuma Vihari didn’t do too badly for himself either. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane might have earned themselves a little more time but they aren’t out of the woods... not yet.
The way the dice rolls
You have to deal with whatever fate throws your way but the rain on Day 4 was a cruel blow. The moisture in the outfield didn’t exactly help India’s bowlers. The ball became wet, had to be changed once and then as it rolled along the outfield, it picked up more moisture. KL Rahul wasn’t pleased at all but there was nothing anyone could do about it. There were a few deliveries that beat the bat but on the whole, batting seemed much easier and that saw South Africa score 55 runs off the first 11 overs of the day.
The pace at which the runs were scored seemed to knock the wind out of the Indian players. They didn’t even have Kohli’s infectious energy to feed off. But at the end of the day, the winning team makes its own luck.
South Africa survived quite the examination in the final session on Day 3 and they roughed it out to emerge worthy winners. Expect more of the same at Cape Town where two iffy batting orders will take on good bowling attacks. The bowlers will win it but that isn’t going to happen without a telling contribution from the batters. Luck, as always, will play its part too but it will only matter if everyone else does what they are supposed to.
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