Updated: January 14, 2022 8:39:58 am
A few resemblances are hard to ignore as this hard-fought Test series goes into its deciding day. Four years ago at Newlands, India were set a target of 208 by South Africa. Four years later at the same venue, India set a target of 212 for South Africa.
The hosts had gone on to win that match by a comfortable margin of 72 runs. That may well have served as motivation for India at the start of the chase on Thursday, but as South Africa closed Day Three on 101/2, that kind of victory margin — if not perhaps the victory itself — is out of the question now.
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There is another, and probably more pertinent, resemblance. South Africa had closed Day Three of the second Test at Wanderers last week on 118/2 in pursuit of 240. In Cape Town, they are 101/2, needing another 111 with the same number of wickets left.
But crucially, South Africa’s captain and premier immovable object Dean Elgar was unbeaten at stumps in Johannesburg; he would go on to fashion a famous series-levelling win the next evening with an unbeaten 96. At Newlands, Elgar fell caught behind down the leg side off Jasprit Bumrah to what turned out to be the last delivery of the day.
Elgar’s dismissal broke a 78-run second-wicket stand with Keegan Petersen, which was well and truly taking the match away from India. They thought they had Elgar lbw with the South African score on 60, but ball-tracking showed R Ashwin’s delivery bouncing over the stumps to the Indians’ utter shock.
That got to them and for the rest of the evening, they kept going after the host broadcaster, making sure they were close to the stump mike when they voiced their colourful opinions.
Elgar and Petersen rubbed it in immediately with a boundary each in the next over. The South African captain had got under the Indians’ skin in the Wanderers chase too, and he had done the same again at Newlands. After his five-wicket haul in the first innings, Bumrah had said that this was a new-ball pitch, and once the ball got old and the seam wore off, it got easier for the batsmen. But the Indians were able to strike only once with the new ball in the chase, and that too when Aiden Markram went after a Mohammed Shami outswinger only to edge it to third slip.
Instead, it was Marco Jansen and Kagiso Rabada who had proved Bumrah’s words to be true in the morning. Armed with a 17-over old, still-new ball, Jansen had bounced Cheteshwar Pujara with the leg-trap laid and got him to glove the second ball of the day to leg slip. In the very next over, Rabada had produced one of those unplayable brutes; it had rocketed from a good length, and there was no way Ajinkya Rahane could have pulled his gloves away in time from the impending doom.
However, once Virat Kohli resumed his second vigil of the match, and Rishabh Pant counter-attacked, the South African attack’s bite began to get blunted. It was quite the combination; Kohli refused to play a stroke, Pant refused to stop playing them.
The contrast lasted for nearly 30 overs, before Kohli decided to finally play a big drive and nicked to second slip for 29 off 143, making it 12 successive dismissals in overseas Tests caught in the slips or by the wicketkeeper. Even as Pant tried his best to farm the strike with the tail on way to his fourth Test hundred, India fell from 152/4 to 198 all out inside the next 20 overs. It is very well for Ashwin and Shardul Thakur to be tagged as allrounders, but perhaps they could have shown more match-awareness. Both departed for single-digit scores playing expansive shots instead of attempting to hang in there and provide support to Pant.
— Cricket South Africa (@OfficialCSA) January 13, 2022
Barring the first innings in Centurion when they got probably the best batting conditions of the series on the first day, India’s batting has largely under-achieved with scores of 174, 202, 266, 223 and 198.
The Cape Town pitch has some grass along the lines of the cracks to prevent them from opening up too much but the ball was still taking off now and then from a good length. In the chase, Petersen was fortunate to escape a few times, albeit with a couple of painful blows on the gloves.
But overall he was again the best of the South African batsmen on display. His ability to punch the slightest width or error in length through the covers off the back foot keeps the runs coming when there is nothing available to drive. He was also pretty quick on the feet against Ashwin, rocking back to slap the offspinner through the off side for fours. Already, he is two short of his second fifty of the match, and stopping him on the final morning will be critical to India’s remaining hopes of winning in the ‘final frontier.’
It is this venerated bowling attack that has delivered Test wins for India around much of the cricketing world. And fittingly, it is in the bowlers’ hands whether the feats of Australia and England will be repeated in South Africa. The batsmen haven’t given them much to play with. But they have already overcome that drawback once in this match itself, when they successfully converted an under-par 223 into a first-innings lead of 13. It will be doubly historic if they can conjure a win out of this situation. As centurion Pant said later from behind the stumps in encouragement, ‘poora dum lagayenge [we will give it everything].’
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