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Thursday, January 27, 2022

2nd Test preview: India eye historic series win in South Africa

The 2018 Test at the Wanderers was a nightmare for batsmen but Virat Kohli’s team favourites at their happy hunting ground away from home

Written by Abhishek Purohit |
Updated: January 3, 2022 8:22:22 am
SA vs INDIndia's captain Virat Kohli, center, celebrates with teammates after the dismissal of South Africa's batsman Lungi Ngidi. (AP Photo)

When a dogged batter of the calibre of Dean Elgar says play should have been called off because the pitch was dangerous, you know the danger was potentially life threatening.

“Batters got hit a hell of a lot of times. We had an incident of being hit in the head, where we could have had an incident of what happened in Australia. People want to watch Test cricket but we are also human beings. We are not just going to take blows and accept putting our bodies on the line… If there was a period to call it off, it was sooner,” Elgar had said.

For someone who puts his body on the line for a living, and revels in that job, for Elgar to have invoked the tragic demise of Phil Hughes shows just how much the Wanderers Test of January 2018 took out of the batters.

This is not to make light of what the players were up against, but for once, it was the home team claiming, and rightly so, that conditions had slipped into extreme territory.

The visiting Indians could have been forgiven had they folded in these conditions against an attack comprising Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander and Lungi Ngidi. There was little obvious incentive to take the very physical risk of trying to counter the enormity of what they were up against. The series had already been lost. A typically busy schedule, with the IPL followed by major tours of England and Australia, was lined up.

But India, after winning the toss, chose to take first hit — quite literally as it was to turn out. Virat Kohli, striding forward undaunted amid deliveries exploding even from good length, made 54 and 41, perhaps two of the weightiest two-figure scores made by the same batter in a Test match.

Cheteshwar Pujara forged 50 off 179 in the first innings and Ajinkya Rahane smacked 48 off 68 in the second, again scores that were worth a lot more than the numbers that got registered on the sheet. Elgar remained unconquered on 86, but India registered one of their most famous wins in the most trying of conditions without complaining about them.

Even before the 2018 win that was to set Kohli’s men on their path to dominance, the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg only had happy memories for the Indians. They have never lost at the ground in five Tests (two wins, three draws), while they have tasted defeat in 10 of 16 Tests at other South African venues. (India have played more away Tests (6) in Georgetown, Guyana and never lost too, but they’ve never won there either)

India’s current coach, Rahul Dravid, was reminded in the pre-match press conference that he had scored the first of his 36 Test hundreds at Wanderers in January 1997. He, in turn, also spoke about leading India to their first Test win in South Africa at Wanderers in December 2006.

That South African team was led by the give-no-quarter Graeme Smith, and contained the likes of Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Mark Boucher, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn. This South African team is nowhere near that kind of quality, and has been weakened further by Quinton de Kock’s mid-series retirement from Tests.

The wicketkeeper was probably the likeliest candidate who could have taken the fight to the Indians with the bat. Now Elgar is a fantastic defensive batter who can absorb blows, but then, this Indian bowling attack has the depth to keep delivering blows all day and then some more.

In these conditions – Dravid expects the Wanderers pitch as well to assist bowlers – there is little to be achieved by looking to survive at both ends, especially against this attack.

South Africa need someone to play the kind of counter-attacking innings Rahane did in the second innings at Wanderers 2018. In all likelihood, conditions won’t be as harsh as they were four years ago for batters for a long time to come, leave alone at Wanderers 2022; so the positive push from an Aiden Markram or a Keegan Petersen or a Temba Bavuma or a Rassie van der Dussen has to last that much longer.

Elgar said that it was time for his players to put on their “big-boy pants” and respond to the challenge India had thrown at them in Centurion. “We have had a lot of hard chats. I did tell the guys the other day that I need to see action now,” Elgar said.

“Talk is cheap if you don’t have the reaction from those kind of talks. They need to understand that Test cricket is bloody tough. You are facing some of the best bowlers in the world now. You need to put on your big-boy pants now and react to what has happened.”

It is rare that a visiting team goes into a Test match with an unbeaten record at the venue spanning across three decades. It is rarer that it goes into a Test match with the chance to create yet another slice of history – its first series win in that ‘final frontier’ country.

To prevent that from happening, and indeed to derive inspiration, South Africa need to look no further than what these same opponents achieved four years ago at the same venue against all odds. It is called the Bullring; give it a contest worthy of the bull-headedness it deserves.

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