Pacers in their pomp are said to instill fear in the hearts of batsmen. Bhuvneshwar Kumar was so good today that he even made the slip cordon jittery. Every time he would get the ball to jump, move, miss the bat or kiss the edge, a spontaneous cheer would rise from behind the stumps. Gradually, the claps would go silent as the cordon — consisting of Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma — would watch on the giant screen the replays Bhuvi’s ball darting around dangerously. The joy of seeing the South African top-order getting into trouble would be diluted by the thought of being in front of the stumps much sooner than they would have thought or liked.
The first day of the series that features one of the world’s greatest (Dale Steyn), fastest (Rabada) and tallest (Morkel) pacers went on expected lines. Of the 12 wickets to fall, the speedsters took 10. Surprisingly, the bowler most successful on Day 1 happens to be the one who is increasingly seen as the ‘smartest’ in the world. Though the South Africans didn’t get to bowl many overs, it was Bhuvneshwar Kumar who stood out for his incisiveness. After Bhuvneshwar’s magic with the new ball (4/87) limited South Africa to 286, the cherry changed hands and so did the control of the game. In the 11 overs that Philander, Steyn, Morkel and Rabada bowled, India’s slip cordon was made aware of Newlands’ ugly truth — as a batsman you are always the safest when you are not wearing the pads and the helmet.
At stumps, Pujara (5) and Sharma (0) were occupying the crease and the scoreboard showed India at 28/3. The late Indian collapse would have made local fans happier, but the game, as Bhuvaneshwar said after the day’s play, was evenly poised. There were no runaway leaders since South Africa too were struggling at 12/3 early in the first session. After being at home for most of last year, Indian cricketers, and their fans, were in unfamiliar territory. This wasn’t how they are used to playing cricket in India. The surface didn’t have the colour of their choice, the spinners (there was only one, R Ashwin) didn’t get the new ball and there was no circle of crouching close-in fielders. This was a different ball game, the action had moved up — from below the ankle to the chest level.
The Indian bowlers were enjoying the change but the three batsmen who were back in the hut would have to be reminded that they were not in Mohali, Nagpur or Delhi. This was Cape Town. Murali Vijay would have realised that trying to push the ball between point and gully wasn’t a great plan to steal a single. In South Africa, exploiting the gaps in front of the wickets would be a better idea to rotate the strike.
Virat Kohli would certainly know that Morkel can get disconcerting bounce from the first ball. Maybe, in India he would have been able to get over the rising ball that he got out on today. At Newlands, it’s always advisable to leave such deliveries. As for Shikhar Dhawan, well, no one pulls a fired up Steyn. Period.
There was an interesting trivia about the game today. Despite the bounce on the track and the ever-present cordon next to the wicket-keeper few catch went to slips. And that the batsmen were beaten more by the carry that the bowlers got and less from the movement off the pitch. A bigger deviation results in thicker edges and the ball flying away from the wicket-keeper. The sudden take-off means finer snicks and the ball reaching the wicket-keeper.
Bhuvaneshwar exploited the sharp bounce the best and Saha had a hand in three of his four dismissals. Elgar clearly underestimated the Indian new-ball bowlers’ sharpness, the opener failing to block the suddenly rising third ball of the day. Aiden Markram couldn’t read the in-swing, despite the precaution of standing way outside the off-stump. Amla, too, couldn’t comprehend the bounce as he was out playing his favourite punch through covers. What seemed like a short-length harmless ball turned out to be faster and higher.
AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis would hold things together and take the total to 126 with their aggressive approach. Bhuvneshwar would not get enough support from Mohammad Shami in the early spell. The two surprise inclusions in the pace department, debutant Jasprit Bumrah and all-rounder Hardik Pandya — who was preferred over Ajinkya Rahane — too took time to settle. The two pacers, more known for their shorter-version expertise, needed a few overs to hit the Test match line and length. However, justifying their inclusion, they got the day’s two most important South African wickets, de Villiers and du Plessis, just when the two batsmen seemed to have steered the hosts out of trouble.
13 wickets on a Day 1 of the India-South Africa series brings a sense of déjà vu. Back in 2015, when the two teams played the series-opener in Mohali, 12 wickets had fallen. Replying to India’s 201, South Africa were 13 for two. The conditions favoured India but the South Africans fancied their chances. However, very early on Day 2, it was all over. With South Africa failing to read the Indians on the spinning track, India won the Test in 3 days.
The Indians now find themselves in a similar situation. With Rahane not in the side, Pujara and Sharma happen to be India’s last pair of specialist batsmen. India’s fortunes hang by the thread at Newlands. Philander, Morkel and Steyn have it in them to exploit the bounce. This is a different ball game.