It was a hot summer’s day at the Centurion on Saturday. A sluggish track meant that unlike Newlands, there wouldn’t be much lateral movement for the pacers.
The Indian team management’s questionable selection choices left most wondering whether the day would have panned out differently had certain individuals had also been picked.
A few dropped catches further dented India’s hope of making a sound start in a Test, which they need to keep their hopes of winning a Test series in South Africa alive.
But despite all these factors, Kohli’s men ended up on top at close of play. India turned the tide in final session as they struck thrice in a span of 11 minutes to reduce South Africa from 246/3 to 251/6.
South Africa’s batsmen had showed patience on a track where the ball wasn’t quite coming onto the bat. Aiden Markram (94) and Hashim Amla (82) had produced gritty knocks to not only frustrate the Indian bowlers, but put the hosts on track of achieving a big total.
India’s bowlers were struggling to find any help from the placid track, with the strategy slowly shifting to containment in the final session of the day.
The visitors needed something exceptional to turn the tide and they got just that. One, a piece of remarkable fielding that is rare to come by. Two, an impressive display by a spinner, who had no business of extracting turn off a wicket on Day 1 of a Test in South Africa. And third, a ‘brain fade’ moment that has no explanation.
Hardik Pandya, who has made it a habit to turn things around for India lately, started off the sequence of events with an exceptional run-out of Amla in the 81st over.
Pandya was one of India’s standout performer in the first Test. His counter-attacking 93 in the first innings of the Cape Town Test and an impressive performance with the ball in the second essay had helped him given a good account of himself.
The all-rounder once again stepped up, this time with his quick thinking. Bowling to Amla, Pandya was quick to reach the ball as the batsman dabbed one trying to pinch a quick single. South Africa skipper Faf du Plessis was keen on the run and Amla had to abide by his skipper’s decision. Pandya, though, reached the ball quickly and pulled off a turn and and direct hit that would have made some of the best fielders in the world to sit up and take notice.
Off-spinner R Ashwin produced some sharp turn to dismiss Quinton de Kock off the first ball he faced in very next over. This was Ashwin’s third wicket of the day, three more than what he had managed in the entire tour of South Africa in 2013.
It was remarkable to watch Ashwin find turn and bounce off the track on Day 1. In South Africa, spinners seldom find assistance from a wicket on the opening day of a Test. To India’s fortune, this was to be that rare occurence where sharp turn would be on offer.
In the 83rd over, all-rounder Vernon Philander gifted India their sixth scalp of the day after he was run-out in hilarious circumstances.
Philander dabbed the ball and scooted off for a run. His partner and skipper Faf du Plessis appeared to have shouted no from the other end, but Philander was busy ball watching and soon joined his skipper at the other end handing India their third wicket in as many overs.
After the first two sessions, it became evident that South Africa were eyeing a big total. They ended the day on 269/6. In 11 manic minutes, they went from dominating the day to losing three quick wickets and all their momentum.
Those 11 minutes were almost as unexplainable as India’s bold selection moves at the start of play.
A wicketless first session had added to the pressure on Kohli and Co. As Markram and Amla motored in the second session, it was dawning on most that the decision was proving counter-productive.
The late flurry of wickets, though, came as a welcome relief for India. It was like a burst of cold wind on a hot summer’s day – the bowlers ran in that bit harder and there was a spring in the stride fielders too.
There’s still work to be done and India should to not let the advantage slip from this point. Day 2 and 3 are expected to good for batting with the wicket expected to crack on Day 4 and 5, much like in the sub-continent. With the hot weather to boot, it is likely to feel like playing at home for the Indians.
There is unlikely to be a better scenario for India to level the series. Kohli will stress on that and so will Shastri. But cricket, as Day 1 showed, can be a funny, funny game.