You wait ages for a bus and then two come along at once. That’s how it was with South African wickets at Centurion on Tuesday. They fell in bunches after long run-less hours of attrition between tight bowling and dogged batting. Discipline and patience waited eternally for the other to blink.
The contest isn’t over but the twinkle of India’s eye has gone. Virat Kohli’s late dismissal — Lungi Ngidi’s debut getting better with each passing day — swung the game in South Africa’s favour. It was a day of 11 wickets, 203 runs, 85.3 overs. The first two sessions had 5 wickets in all, the final had 6. At least for the locals, it was a day when cricket grew on you.
Those who had shown patience and stuck around to be at the third session, saw South Africa’s big stride to a series-winning Test triumph. India, chasing 287 for a historic win at Centurion, were 35/3. The din of the final hour was in contrast to the silence of the two sessions. At stumps, those who waited patiently at the bus stop were on a memorable road trip.
Test cricket isn’t for the “fan in a hurry” and Centurion had none of those restless T20 junkies. The few thousands who were here were sprawled on the grass banks; the blankets and colourful umbrellas brought from home giving them cushion and shade. The steep slope gave the grown-ups the perfect incline to relax, for the kids it was a smooth slide. While parents sipped beer and dozed off under the soft sun, the unattended little ones got into somersaults contests and sword fights with inflated balloon sticks.
They would get woken up by an occasional wicket or Centurion’s circumnavigating brass band with a cheerleader in rainbow colours. He would teach them dance moves, ask them to sing-along and they all would wave wildly when seen on the giant screen.
The 2nd session yielded 57 runs and 2 wickets. But Centurion was the best place to watch a day of cricket where you didn’t have to jump up and down holding those ‘4’ and ‘6’ placards.
The missing excitement of the ball racing to the fence was over-compensated by the incredible, orderly Indian bowling and their plans to keep the South African stroke-players mostly silent. On a day when AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock graced the crease, South Africa could only score at a run-rate of 2.8.
The story of the Indian bowling restricting South Africa for less than 300 for the third time in four innings can be divided into three brief chapters featuring different bowlers and their plans.
Mohammed Shami’s unputdownable magical spell, Ishant Sharma’s unwavering ‘top of off-stump’ attack and off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin’s search for that perfect ball made for a drama that didn’t need the fans to be on the edge of their seats. It was one to watch from the bean bag.
Shami doesn’t have the fast bowlers’ look. He isn’t tall, doesn’t sledge and takes time to hit the straps. Maybe, that’s the reason he is deceptive and gives batsmen a false sense of confidence.
Today too, Shami conceded 9 runs in his first over. The overnight batsmen — de Villiers and Dean Elgar — hitting him for fours. AB hit him past the slip cordon and Elgar pulled him. Both strokes exposing the wrong length — he was bowling too short to the unforgiving batsmen.
So when Shami came in to bowl his second over of the spell, the batsmen would have thought they were facing a bowler who wasn’t in rhythm. A ball later, AB would be walking to the dressing room, maybe wondering how he had underestimated Shami. AB was out caught behind to a ball that rose very sharply from good length. A second wicket would quickly follow after Shami would go round the wicket. This time he would surprise left-hander Elgar with a short one and force him to mishit a pull into the hands of deep square leg.
Shami’s third wicket of the day had the most drama. Incredibly, if the field-placement was perfect and this was a net session, Shami would have had de Kock four times in as many balls. He continued to make the ball rise from good length and the batsman kept edging. Finally, Parthiv Patel would hold onto the ball and the SA wicket-keeper’s misery would be over.
Ishant Sharma would end the long wait of wickets in the second session. Sharma these days follows the McGrath school of pace bowling — just aim at the top of off-stump. With express pace and precise seam movement from outside off, he continued to be on target all afternoon. His tight spell had a big role to play in South Africa’s snail-like crawl. Sharma, then, aimed one at the top of the batsman’s head. First Philander, and later Maharaj, got out to balls that rose dangerously on the batsmen.
Meanwhile, while the pacers were getting edges and wickets, Ashwin was searching for that special wicket-taking ball. He was getting turn and bounce but not wickets. He mostly bowled to the left-handers – Elgar and Rabada. He would concentrate on the rough outside their off-stump and many a times would beat them. But either his length was too short or the turn too much to take the edge. On a pitch that had a very sub-continental feel, Ashwin was restrictive today but not deadly as he can be expected to be.
However, once the taller and faster South African bowlers took the field, the nature of the pitch seemed to have changed. Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Morne Morkel would get the ball to bounce and carry. But like most fourth-day tracks, some would also keep low. Murali Vijay got out to one that stayed low, Rabadi giving the South Africans the breakthrough.
After that the statuesque speedster Ngidi would take over. KL Rahul couldn’t keep a rising ball down as he tried to cut and this got Virat Kohli to the crease. And when Ngidi had him lbw, a bushfire seemed to have been ignited on the grass banks.
The lazing fans were jumping in the air – the debutant had got the rival captain. Somehow, Cheteshwar Pujara and Parthiv Patel would see out the day, just about able to survive. India could manage just 35 in 23 overs.
On this lazy afternoon when time stopped, South Africa’s most relaxed venue proved that watching runs dry wasn’t as boring as staring at fresh paint getting firm.