Scattered thunderstorms — any weather app you flick open throws out those ominous words for the few days of the Test match at Pune. The outfield at the ground is sand-based and the local authorities claim that the game can be restarted in just 15-20 minutes after rain. Be that as may, what if there is a torrential downpour? A wash out or a rain-curtailed draw isn’t the best of news at any time but it’s more than just a bummer in the new Test championship model. It will rob the victor of 40 points – drawn game at Pune will only yield 13 points.
The Championship format stipulates 120 points for a Test series and it’s then accordingly distributed, factoring the number of Tests played in the series.
A five-match series would mean 24 for a win in a Test, two-Test series would be 60 for a win, and since India-South Africa series is a three-match affair, the winners get 40 points for a Test. It incentivises teams to push for wins as a draw in a five-match series will only get you 8 points and in a two-Tests series 20 points.
The championship format not only makes every game valuable and gives much-needed context but is also likely to bite a team in situations like rain. Pune has been under deluge for a while now, and though sunshine broke through couple of days ago and likely to shower down for the next few days, the forecast from 10th – the first day – isn’t great.
Not to suggest that this should be seen as India robbed, necessarily. For all their listless spin bowling in the first game, the South Africans did fight admirably in patches, and if they hadn’t come up against an inspired Mohammad Shami on the final day, they could well have drawn the game.
Such were the conditions that the oldish ball, once went soft, had nothing to offer to the spinners.
It also places R. Ashwin’s first-wicket haul of 7 wickets in proper context – it was a fine effort in the circumstances. And of course, Shami’s wonderful spell in trying conditions on the last day will go down as one of the finest performances by an Indian seamer in the fourth innings of a game.
It was a peculiar game, the spinners wanting to bowl with the new ball and the seamers preferring the older one to skid them if they can. In both departments, India were far superior.
Not just the spinners, but even the Indian pacers know the conditions far better and know what to attempt with the ball. Kagiso Rabada did have an inspiring spell, unlucky not to dismiss Cheteshwar Pujara in the second innings, but by then, they were doing more of a holding job. Especially after their spinners bled runs.
It’s their batting that kept them in the game. Dean Elgar is one of the better dogged openers in world cricket, and he showed he has the game to adapt to Indian conditions.
The batting also threw up the puzzling question of why Faf du Plessis isn’t batting at No.4. Surely, with Temba Bavuma stuck at the crease, it’s better for his own confidence to be sent one place down.
Else consistent failures in this series might well cause him more harm. Du Plessis can, as he showed in the first innings, take the game forward and if one of the top-order stay with him, he can resist well.
Batting order juggle
South Africa are at an interesting rebuilding phase right now. The seam attack is still pretty good, the top order have the talent, skill, and tried showing the kind of intent needed to take on India in India. Aiden Markram came up with a decent performance in the second innings, and Theunis de Bruyn, the No.3, might have not made many runs but he showed glimpses of why he is rated as a good player against spin.
He did have a problem or two in picking Ashwin but his intent was of someone who believes he is good enough to attack. Or play positively at least. Both times, he fell trying an aggressive shot but the South African camp reckon he will come good soon.
Senuran Muthusamy impressed by his application with the bat in the second innings, prompting a question to du Plessis whether he could be promoted in the batting order to squeeze in a seamer instead. “He played unbelievably well, technically very sound against spin. There is a case (for promoting). Before this Test I would have said no because I hadn’t seen enough of his batting but he showed to everyone, not just to myself, that he can definitely play at no. 7.”
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The Test also provided with great learning experience for du Plessis, the captain.
“A lot about angles. It’s my first time captaining in India. You learn about different angles of field placements, where the ball tends to travel more. You watch the opposition what they are doing. You watch their bowling attack, try and see how they set up batters. We will have plans for next game.”
The rains in the recent past means we still don’t know how the Pune pitch is likely to play out. It couldn’t have been possible to produce a dry surface in this wet September-October and hopefully it at least won’t be as dull as the one at Vizag.
The best off-the-field moment in the Vizag Test came when Vernon Philander was asked a question about playing a third seamer instead of a spinner. He stared. He laughed. He stared. He fell silent. He laughed again. Then said, “both team’s seamers have taken only 4 wickets”.
Then of course, Shami came and turned the game upside down on the final day, and it probably would have made South Africa think about their next eleven, depending on the pitch of course. And if clouds empty out on the match days, then there will be some cursing and muttering, probably more in the Indian camp.