Ravi Shastri said before the Test series began that for this team, the belief is that “every game is a home game.” And that belief looked very real at Super Sport Park, Centurion as a brown track that has taken turn from day one, with temperatures reaching high 30s, made it feel like a game in their own backyard for India. But, at the end of day two, it’s South Africa who have the upper-hand, with India’s batting once again disappointing, leaving the visitors 152 runs behind with five wickets in hand. But for Virat Kohli’s batting masterclass, things would have been much worse for India.
Here are the main talking points from an action-packed day of Test cricket.
There are things that we associate with this Indian cricket team – great spin bowlers, wristy batsmen, batting records, domination at home, troubles away. And now to that list, we can add bad slip fielding. Over and over again, in match after match, India somehow find ways to make things difficult for themselves by dropping catches.
The count at the end of South Africa’s first innings in this match stood at five, with three coming in the first session and two in one R Ashwin over, allowing the hosts’ last four partnerships to cross the 80-run mark. Kohli put down another catch in the slip, Mohammed Shami and Hardik Pandya ran into each other off the very next ball, Parthiv Patel failed to collect an outside off Faf du Plessis – his 2nd dropped catch of the match, and 9th in the last four Tests he has played.
No catch in the slips is easy but if you are standing there for your national team, you can be expected to take them. Kohli – with all his energy – seems like a bad fit. He often goes at the ball hard and too often, he seems distracted with captaincy and perhaps even the need to chat up the batsmen.
Rahul Dravid, India’s greatest slip fielder, had this to say about fielding in the slips:
“One of the important things I have found with slip catching is, you need to have relaxed hands. When an edge is coming towards you, the last thing you want to do is tighten up or freeze or snatch at the ball.”
This is what Kohli consistently does wrong. All those things make him very good in the outfield but in the slips, that just won’t cut it. Truth to be said, Rahane has been missed in a big way.
And Parthiv’s performance comes in the match after the one where Wriddhiman Saha put in a flawless display, taking 10 catches – an Indian record.
This will come back to hurt India. Perhaps, it already has?
The biggest talking point on day one was undoubtedly Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s exclusion. While it made very little sense, Ishant’s inclusion did turn out to be beneficial for India. He proved why he deserved to be in the XI (still doesn’t explain the decision to not include Bhuvneshwar in the place of the other two pacers in the XI who were underwhelming once again).
On day two, Ishant continued to bowl the right lengths, getting the all-important wicket of du Plessis just as the South African captain was taking the game away from India along with the tail-enders. It was a ball that deserved a wicket – full, fast, tailing back in and rattling the middle stump.
“I am the senior fast bowler of this team so I have to take responsibility,” Ishant said after the match. “If I am ready to take those important wickets for the team, I am always up for it,” Ishant said. I always believe in my strength and my strength is bounce, so I always try to bowl where I can finish my ball on the top of off stump. I think that’s the best chance you give yourself to take more wickets and that’s what I was doing.”
He certainly stepped up for his captain.
Cheteshwar Pujara will not beat Kohli in a 100m sprint. In fact, he probably won’t even finish in the same frame and he knows that. He knows that he isn’t the fastest cricketer around and he also knows that he is on the team for a different reason.
So then what in the world prompted him to hit the ball to mid-on and set off for a quick single from the very first ball he faced? Some might argue that it was anxiousness to get off the mark. Just to get things going, get the feet moving and all that jazz. Others might feel – as Jonty Rhodes said in the commentary – that in Indian grounds you don’t expect a fast bowler to pick up the ball and throw down the stumps. This would have been an easy single.
Still, one suspects, most will feel that this dismissal was down to Virat Kohli’s favourite word: intent.
Pujara is comfortable batting 20 balls and not scoring a single run. His mentality is different from other batsmen and he has shown that many times before. But with the Indian skipper harping on intent and pushing others to play cricket his way, maybe Pujara started feeling the strain too.
After all, Pujara has been dropped from the Test team earlier for not scoring quickly enough. Would he want that to happen to him again? The judgement was bad no doubt but feels like there is so much more to this.
Rohit’s three innings so far in South Africa: 11, 10 and 10.
The Hitman was once again set-up beautifully by Kagiso Rabada. The image below illustrates it beautifully – he kept bowling outside offstump, shaping the ball away, and then - BOOM - a fast inswinger that caught Rohit at the crease, his front foot stuck after the initial trigger movement.
All the talk on air during Rohit’s brief stay in the middle was about this was his chance to cement his place, on a familiar subcontinent-ish pitch. And he, promptly, disappointed.
If form was the reason for his selection over Ajinkya Rahane, the same reason should see his place in the third Test come under intense scrutiny, unless he plays an exemplary knock if and when he bats again in Centurion.
Since India made their way to South Africa, the focus had been around the ability of the Indian players to adapt to the overseas conditions. In Cape Town, the seaming track had exposed the batsmen’s lack of technique. Skipper Kohli, who has been India’s most consistent performers during the home season last year, was also dismissed cheaply in both innings.
At Centurion, the track is quite different, it was as Indian as it can possibly get in South Africa. There was pace and bounce, but no real lateral movement. Given a chance to bat on a wicket that is almost similar to sub-continental conditions - bereft of many demons - it wasn’t a surprise that Kohli took to it like fish to water.
Kohli proved most adept at tackling the two-paced track. He began in typical fashion, stringing together singles as soon as he got in, after a couple of majestic drives. Among all the Indian batsmen before him, Kohli seemed the least worried while facing the pacers. He took on the batsmen and taking minimal time to settle down.
Kohli’s positive approach seemed to have rubbed on to partner Murali Vijay too. The two pieced together a crucial 79-run stand. The stand meant South Africa had to ease the field, start containing rather than attacking, which is otherwise the norm.
Even as wickets fell around him, Kohli remained stubborn. It was not until the dying minutes of the day that Kohli was actually beaten outside his offstump. He also survived a close LBW call, but apart from that, looked in total control. He played with the confidence of a batsman who is at the top of his game.
India need to post a big total from here if they are to make a serious effort at levelling the series. For Indian fans, hopefully, the lower order sticks around long enough for Kohli to do what he does best – dominate the opposition bowlers.
India’s chances seem tied to the fate of how this Kohli innings transpires on day three.
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