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Thursday, May 19, 2022

India vs South Africa: Farce that mattered, and didn’t

Kohli’s bizarre tactics allowed Vernon Philander and Keshav Maharaj stitch a century stand; while it is unlikely to have an impact on the result of the match, India’s inability to dismiss the tail is worrying

Written by Sandip G | Pune |
October 13, 2019 4:47:56 am
India vs South Africa: Farce that mattered, and didn’t R Ashwin reacts after taking the wicket of Keshav Maharaj on Day 3 of the second Test against South Africa on Saturday. PTI

Umesh Yadav was walking in briskly from fine-leg, shadow-bowling to his bowling mark, before Virat Kohli screamed at him to retreat. The pacer shook his head as he went back reluctantly. He couldn’t comprehend the ploy, as he had looked the likeliest bowler to breach the resistance of Keshav Maharaj and Vernon Philander in his three-over spell.

Yadav was making the odd old ball reverse at pace, had the batsmen fending indecisively and playing away from the body while occasionally rapping them on the pads. The sniff of a wicket was blowing in the mild breeze that wafted across the stadium. But it was not to be.

Yadav was the only bowler whose natural line is at the stumps, and when bowling at the lower order, the length matter less than the line. Many tail-enders like nothing more than bowling that creates no threat to body or gloves, and to the stumps if they miss it. Allied with his pace, Yadav was India’s best bet to wipe off the tail. It’s where India lost the plot, the only phase of the game they seemed to be without direction or plan.

In reality, it wasn’t a doomsday scenario — a dogged lower-order rearguard is commonplace in the subcontinent when the ball gets worn out and the strip turns lifeless. However, Kohli got restless.

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He didn’t attempt anything radical, the fields weren’t extremely defensive either. A few close-in fielders were moved closer to the ring, personnel were swapped around, Kohli barked out instructions more frequently and more frantically. It made one wonder whether South Africa were 250-odd for eight to 550 for eight.

Soon, he removed Ashwin from the attack after a two-over spell, wherein he spun the ball twice past Maharaj’s outside edge and seemed to get drift. Like Yadav, Ashwin too walked back to his fielding position with a startled look.

Change backfires

Thus, at a time when he was most frustrated, Kohli shunned the services of his two most penetrative bowlers in this match. The changes only backfired. Maharaj and Philander, experienced as they’re, could sense India’s nerves snap. They grew in confidence, struck a few more boundaries and piled on the agony. India, for once in the series, looked less invulnerable.

Maharaj possesses two first-class hundreds and Philander has eight Test-match half-centuries. Both demonstrated the stickability their main batsmen couldn’t.

Their resistance, it seemed, would only last till the second new ball, when Shami and Yadav in collusion, or Yadav and Ashwin in tandem, would mop up the tail. Shami couldn’t and Yadav, the sharpest new-ball operator of the match, was introduced as late as the 96th over, as the fourth-change bowler.

It prompted the question — why wasn’t he given a longer spell in the 70s?

In the end, Ashwin ended the torment in the space of four overs, and the joy was back on Kohli’s face. Other than prolonging the inevitable and eating up a bit of the lead — India still managed a massive 326-run advantage — the partnership amounted to nothing. But the recurrent inability to demolish the lower order would rankle Kohli.

In this match alone, the last two wickets added 113 runs and ate up nearly 46 overs. While it might not turn out to be decisive, the trend is worrying. In Vizag, the last three had added 61 in the first innings, in the second the last two combined 121. Even the lightweight West Indies lower order was allowed the licence to go berserk. In Antigua, in the second innings, the last pair added 50. Though none of these instanced turned match-defining, India have been stung by the lower order in the past.

Like against South Africa in Cape Town last year, when the last four wickets added 84 in the first innings and India ended up losing by 72 runs. Six months later, in Birmingham, Sam Curran plotted a lower-order fightback, adding 93 runs with the last three in the second innings, as India ended up losing the match by 31 runs. Even in Adelaide, Nathan Lyon almost stole a heist, as the last three attached 105 runs. For a team aspiring to be number one not only in ranking but also in the aura it wields, the inability to blow away the tail is an irritant.

Through all of it, struck the captain’s naivety. True that Philander and Maharaj batted crabbily and blunted the best-laid plans. Tail-enders may have improved — the slogging tail-end jacks are dwindling. Even so, India are inept in this phase of the game. But it wasn’t like India had exhausted all tricks in their arsenal. What about a bouncer-barrage, a yorker-rain, or the yorker-bouncer double-bluff? A bit of needling or a sprinkling of intimidation. Maybe, it’s where they missed the explosiveness of Jasprit Bumrah. But there was a bemused Yadav, the top-order wrecker.

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