Updated: January 11, 2022 11:49:04 am
The series-decider in Cape Town is replete with symbols. It’s where, four years ago, Virat Kohli embarked on world conquest; it’s where Jasprit Bumrah made his Test debut four years ago; it’s where India have twice come tantalisingly close to securing their first series win in South Africa. Should they achieve it this time — the only outpost of the cricketing globe they have never conquered — it could end up defining Captain Kohli and his generation. But should they lose, the series could signal the end of an era. Conversely, if South Africa sustain their turnaround after losing the first Test, it could herald a much-needed resurgence.
As with most deciding fixtures, there is a sense of heightened anticipation. South Africa’s tenacity has breathed life into what was forecast as a one-sided series, more so after the visitors steamrolled the hosts in the first Test. South Africa suddenly seem buoyant; they have shed anxiety and fear. “We have a great record here. We are looking forward to it. South Africa’s pacers have always enjoyed themselves here,” skipper Dean Elgar said before the match.
The record attests: South Africa have lost only five of their 34 games here since readmission. The extra bounce the surface abets as well as the lateral movement it provides in the first session turbocharged their pacers of the past as well as the contemporary inheritor of their mantle, Kagiso Rabada. Against India, they have been invulnerable here — beating them in three of the five duels. Only Australia (four times) and England (once) have managed to beat them here in 29 years. That in itself would be enough to raise home spirits a notch even if the lack of spectators might temper that a little.
🔊 🔊 🔛
— BCCI (@BCCI) January 10, 2022
But fortresses no longer daunt India. They have breached a few over the last six years, from Galle at the tip of the Indian Ocean to Brisbane, a few miles off the Coral Sea, from Kingston on the banks of the Caribbean Sea to Centurion on the banks of the Hennops River. Rather, the sight of citadels has only reinvigorated Kohli, who would be returning to helm the side at an arm-stretch of destiny. Kohli, as well as his colleagues, have neither been overawed nor fazed by history. They wouldn’t wither under the Table Mountains.
— BCCI (@BCCI) January 9, 2022
It’s not like Cape Town has been utterly unkind to India’s cricketers of the past either. India have had their moments here, and each of their expeditions has produced an immortal memory or two. A young and wild Javagal Srinath was adjudged man of the match in India’s first-ever tour to South Africa; Sachin Tendulkar penned two of his majestic hundreds here (169 in 1997 and 146 in 2011, his last in Tests, besides averaging 81.50); Mohammad Azharuddin stroked a glorious hundred too, as did Wasim Jaffer. Harbhajan Singh and S Sreesanth once put India within touching distance of a series win, but for the dourness of Jacques Kallis. Harbhajan’s seven-wicket haul (7 for 120) is still the best bowling figures by a bowler here since South Africa’s reintegration. In fact, finger-spinners have enjoyed bowling here — Saeed Ajmal and Paul Harris too have six-fors here.
After his near-historic bowling figures, Harbhajan said after the day’s play: “I have never bowled in more spin-friendly conditions here before.” On Monday, on his YouTube channel, he exhorted Kohli to pick two spinners. “Every time I have played here, my best analysis have come at this venue. I picked up seven wickets in an innings in Cape Town. Even other spinners have performed well. So India too, I feel, should field two spinners at this venue. Who partners Ashwin from the other end is something Rahul Dravid and the team management will have to ponder,” Harbhajan remarked.
India picking two spinners is highly doubtful, but Ravichandran Ashwin could be a more influential figure here. He has been largely peripheral — bowling only 43.4 overs across four innings — as both Wanderers and SuperSport Park overwhelmingly allied with seamers. Newlands would no doubt assist them again, but the extra bounce and dryness could benefit Ashwin. Whereas he was deployed as a defensive option — Kohli duly pointed out his containing job in the second innings at Wanderers, where in a10-over spell he leaked only 19 runs — Newlands would present a more colourful palette for his attacking brushstrokes.
The bounce here is different — less spongy, more linear and truer. Historically, variable bounce here has often not been as pronounced as in Centurion and Johannesburg. It implies that batsmen could play more freely once they bed in, unshackled from the fear of grubbers as well as rib-clangers. Little surprise then that the top-two highest scores ever at this venue have been essayed by overseas batsmen — Stephen Fleming (262) and Ben Stokes (258).
— BCCI (@BCCI) January 9, 2022
Though there have been bizarre days when teams have lost wickets in clusters — like 18 wickets India and South Africa lost on Day 4 in 2018 — Newlands has a reputation of being kinder to visiting batsmen. Not to be misconstrued as a flat track — fast bowlers are the expected protagonists, as there would be some lingering lateral movement throughout the day and some extra zip if they bend their backs. A reason full-length bowlers enjoy the condition more than back-of-length prowlers.
Should it live up to its history, there wouldn’t be a better venue for the out-of-runs trio of Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane to rediscover run-making touch. Both Pujara and Rahane showed signs of revival in the second innings at the Wanderers before a red-hot spell from Rabada, while Kohli said he was “at peace with how I’m playing”. It implies he is not fussing over his lack of runs and centuries. But he did seek lessons from history, like connecting his recent slump to the one he endured in England in 2014 and how he overcame it.
Though dismissive of history, for once Kohli and Co would do well to summon history to discover solace and confidence in their bid to make history themselves. Win, lose or draw, the match and venue could be replete with symbols. It could define an era, just as it could end one.