Before this game, India had played five Tests at Johannesburg, winning two and drawing three. Their first defeat at Wanderers was down to a combination of factors, from Rishabh Pant’s hara-kiri and a porous middle-order to South Africa getting the heavy roller advantage and poor catching. Virat Kohli’s absence, too, proved to be a big factor.
Not only did India miss their best batsman on a treacherous pitch, they were also bereft of his intensity as a leader. Even during an elongated fallow period, Kohli has been scoring 30s and 40s and as a captain, he revels in tight situations, as was evident during India’s victory over South Africa at Wanderers in 2018 and more recently against England at Lord’s last year. With South Africa marching towards victory, shoulders started to drop in the field. Nobody tried to intimidate Dean Elgar with an in-your-face attitude. After the hosts crossed 200, India rather started to go through the motions.
That was the difference between setting South Africa a victory target which they believed was achievable and taking the lead to around 300 and making it almost improbable for the hosts. In difficult conditions, in a low-scoring game, those 60-odd runs could have mattered a lot.
Pant came to the crease after Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane had put their bodies on the line, playing for their careers and more importantly, playing for the team. They took blows but didn’t flinch. But no sooner had Kagiso Rabada softened up Pant with a bouncer than he charged down the track and got out to an ugly waft. Contrary to common perception, the wicketkeeper-batsman has a pretty good defence and when he uses his attacking talent judiciously, he takes the game away from the opposition, like he did against Australia at the Gabba last year. But mindless dismissals have been piling up of late, suggesting that Pant isn’t learning from his mistakes.
A first innings middle-order implosion cost India dearly in this game. Between Pujara, Rahane and Hanuma Vihari, only 23 runs had been scored, as the tourists slumped to 91/4 from 49/1 at one stage. In the first Test also, India’s middle-order failed to deliver. But Rahul’s century and Mayank Agarwal’s half-century had set them up for a victory. At Wanderers, India opening partnership didn’t gel and except Ravichandran Ashwin’s knock at the first dig and Pujara and Rahane’s fight in the second, there wasn’t much resistance on offer.
This has been a recurring theme. Pant’s dropped catch proved crucial as also Shardul Thakur failing to hold on to a caught-and-bowled chance of Temba Bavuma, with the latter yet to open his account. Given South African batting’s soft underbelly and that Bavuma is their most consistent batsman in the series, along with Elgar, it was a costly drop. At 180/3 and to 240 to get, the game was still pretty open. India had dropped more than 30 catches during their tour of Australia last season. They dropped a couple in the first Test against South Africa also. On Day Three at Wanderers, a half-chance wasn’t taken at leg-slip, with Rassie van der Dussen inside-edging an Ashwin delivery on nought.
On a pitch with variable bounce and some visible cracks, the hosts enjoyed the advantage of using back-to-back heavy rolling, before they started their chase on the third day and on the fourth evening. The use of heavy roller settles the pitch for about an hour at least, neutering the demons and the hosts avoided losing wickets in clusters upfront both yesterday and today.
A hamstring strain suffered on the first day rendered Mohammed Siraj virtually ineffective in this Test. The fast bowler came back to bowl a bit on Day Two, but he was operating at 130kph. He bowled just 9.5 overs in the first innings and only six overs in the second. With his natural incoming deliveries, a fully-fit Siraj could have asked tougher questions to Elgar, the ball leaving the left-hander. His injury was a blow to his team.
Rahul probably didn’t get the adequate preparation time to lead India for the first time, as Kohli’s decision to opt out of the second Test due to a back injury came just hours before the start of the game. A good half-century in the first innings showed that Rahul, as a batsman, didn’t get overburdened by the added responsibility. But under pressure, especially during South Africa’s run chase in the second innings, his captaincy left a lot to be desired. Fourth day’s play had a late start, thanks to rain and when play eventually resumed in overcast conditions, India didn’t use their only swing bowler, Shardul, upfront. Shardul also had his tail up after a seven-for in the first innings. When he was eventually brought on today, after nine overs of play, South Africa had already gotten into the groove. Giving Ashwin just two overs today and removing him when the off-spinner was settling into a nice rhythm, with moisture on the top soil of the pitch, didn’t augur well for India either. And Elgar was allowed to pick his singles on the 45 freely.