Faf du Plessis and Virat Kohli shared a wry smile at the toss for the second Test between India and South Africa on Thursday. It was because the visiting captain had called incorrectly again and the home team was going to bat first in Pune.
In the opening Test of the series, India won the toss, elected to bat first, posted a mammoth total and — despite an unexpected fight shown by the visiting batsmen — ended up winning the match by a big margin.
Both captains knew very well that having to bat fourth was a significant disadvantage.
And as things panned out on Friday, South Africa were once again left playing catch up.
Despite conceding 825 runs for just 11 wickets in the previous game, the Proteas had one big advantage going into the opening session of the second Test. The conditions at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium were conducive for fast bowling early on.
There had been rain in Pune on Thursday morning, the weather was cloudy before the start of the day’s play and the pitch had plenty of moisture in it. It was the right time for South Africa to make inroads in the Indian batting line-up and get ahead of the game. Du Plessis and his men, however, didn’t really do that.
Vernon Philander was impressive in his first spell. He kept a tight line and conceded just five runs in his first four overs. He beat both Rohit Sharma and Mayank Agarwal’s bat with the controlled swing we’re used to seeing from him.
But for reasons best known to du Plessis, Philander was taken out of the attack at that point and replaced with debutant Anrich Nortje. He was then reintroduced six overs later for another burst, but he failed to get the same kind of movement he was getting earlier.
Kagiso Rabada, got the crucial wicket of Sharma in his opening spell. The 24-year-old would also go on to provide the two other breakthroughs his team managed to get on the day. But don’t let his figures of 3/48 from 18.1 overs trick you into believing he was impressive with the ball. Because he was not, especially in the all-important first session.
Rabada’s misfiring start
As former South African skipper Graeme Smith pointed out in commentary, Rabada was simply too short in the first hour or so. The right-arm pacer bowled four no balls and struggled to gain momentum. With the new ball moving in the air and off the wicket, one would expect Rabada, with his pace, to trouble the batsmen in every over. However, barring the one-off peach he bowled to get rid of Sharma, he just did not hit the right lengths.
Rabada has not been at his best in the recent past. He got injured in this year’s Indian Premier League, had a forgettable World Cup campaign, and has not been menacing in the ongoing tour of India. For a fast bowler regarded as one of the best in the business, he seems to be lacking in consistency (even if he had his best day on tour so far) and that’s hurting his team.
South Africa’s inability to make the most of the conditions in the first session will serve as a severe blow. Granted, Agarwal and Cheteshwar Pujara did well to not let their guards down in their second-wicket partnership, but it’s also fair to say that the South African pacers simply did not pose enough of a challenge.
The Proteas were able to win Test matches in India during their tours of 2007 and ’09 because the likes of Makhaya Ntini, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel picked up the bulk of the wickets with the new ball. They bowled with discipline for long periods and set batsmen up. Steyn even had the ability to reverse-swing the ball at a rapid pace.
Philander, Rabada and Nortje’s performance on Thursday, however, was not penetrative enough. The only instance a clear plan was evident was when Agarwal and Co were tested by short balls with a leg-side heavy field, but even that became predictable and pedestrian beyond a point, given the number of times Indian batsmen pulled successfully for fours.
Spinners disappoint again
Of course, the fact that their spinners are not threatening the Indian batsmen is not helping South Africa’s cause. Keshav Maharaj, their No 1 spinner, finished the day with 0/89 off 29 overs. In his first spell, he kept drifting to the leg stump of the right-handed batsmen and was clipped past mid-wicket for multiple boundaries.
Senuran Muthusamy, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to inspire enough confidence in his captain as a bowler and was given just six overs in the day. Their lack of effectiveness only magnifies their lost opportunity in the first hour.
And to round-up a forgettable day for the visitors, they could not break the partnership between Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane. Inexplicably, du Plessis allowed Kohli to settle in by keeping a long-off right at the start of the Indian captain’s innings. The bowlers also failed to put Rahane, someone who has struggled in home conditions for a while now, under any real pressure.
South Africa bowled 31 deliveries with the second new ball. It was dark at that time and a wicket would have raised concerns in the home team’s dressing room heading into the second day. At a time when the pacers should have been bowling full tilt, du Plessis was seen gesturing to Philander to run faster in his run-up. That, perhaps, sums up South Africa’s troubles at the moment. Their players are simply not showing enough purpose on the field.