INDIA TOUR OF SOUTH AFRICA
Bhuvneshwar Kumar bagged a four-wicket haul for India © AFP
India had bowled the opposition out on the first day of an away tour just 10 times before today in Cape Town. They’d done it once before in South Africa, in Durban 1996. Even though India were eventually crushed by a rampaging South African side on a trampoline surface.
A little more than 21 years later, Bhuvneshwar Kumar bowled with a fair amount of skill to snare a four-wicket haul as the hosts were cleaned up for 286. Yet, given the conditions on offer, an economy rate of 4.58 would have left him with a sense “oh but it could have been so much better.”
South Africa were bowled out before the second new ball was due but managed to compile a competitive total with the scoring rate dropping below four only in the post-Tea session, when India’s seamers realised that a slew of short deliveries could quieten South Africa’s lower-order. Until then, for a team tottering at 12 for 3, the hosts scored 107 runs in the first and 123 in the second session at a combined rate of 4.3.
It was your classic counter-attack from AB de Villiers, his batting coach Dale Benkenstein called it as “special”. But India hardly ever collectively hunted him down. While Bhuvneshwar hit his stride early in the first session, Shami struggled, first with his run-up – hindered by a bothersome knee and the breeze – and then with his lines. For an experienced bowler such as himself, he fell victim to the thrill of bowling on a spicy first day wicket.
At 7 for 2, his first delivery to de Villiers drifted on the pads and was duly flicked away for four. When Hashim Amla fell to Bhuvneshwar in the next over, Virat Kohli broke through from the celebrating huddle to put his arm around Shami. He needed his strike bowlers to work in tandem.
There were only two boundaries in the first eight overs. There were 17 scored in the other 18 overs of the session. Somehow, from a position from where they could put their hosts’ emotional composure under a stern test, they let the initiative slip. Curiously, the profligacy began with Bhuvneshwar himself. De Villiers latched onto two half-volleys and then forced a change of the length towards the shorter side from Bhuvneshwar and put those away for boundaries as well. To rub it in, he dropped the last ball of the over towards mid-off and called du Plessis in for another single. The pressure valve was released. “Luckily our phones get taken away or I would have been looking for an Uber soon,” quipped Benkenstein. “Really they are a quality bowling attack and and at that stage, I was sitting there wondering how we were going to score a run. Obviously the genius of AB de Villiers and the tenacity of the captain.
“That partnership… I think it was even just one over, where AB just changed the game. He forced the bowlers to worry about their lengths. I think that partnership of a 100 runs  really got us back in the game, got belief back in the change room.”
Even if that over was to be offered as concession to an otherwise brilliant spell [7-2-29-3] of seam bowling, India were guilty of not following that up with any prolonged periods of containment. Both the conditions and the match situation may have called for an aggressive 6-3 off-side field but the bowling indiscipline called for, whisper it quietly, some of the pragmatism of MS Dhoni’s Test captaincy.
The pitch offered enough wicket-taking opportunities through most parts of the day, but so long as the field stayed up, the bad balls got no insurance. Having traded the option of the hold-one-end-up Ishant Sharma for a Jasprit Bumrah debut, India bled runs through the session. In fact, India conceded two or more boundaries in an over in as many as four overs – 15th, 16th, 22nd and 26th – with Bhuvneshwar himself losing his discipline in his second spell.
Even after that de Villiers-du Plessis century stand, India began to put together a cluster of good overs between Bumrah and Hardik Pandya after lunch and found rewards with the wickets of the two half-centurions. Even though Hardik conceded four boundaries in that brief period of attrition, two had come off edges. You could sense India were close to driving the nail in.
However, India let the initiative slip once again with Quinton de Kock playing a wide array of shots. Bumrah switched to around the wicket despite his natural angle taking the ball away from the left-hander from over the stumps, but was smashed for three successive fours. The next five overs, either side of the drinks break, brought seven boundaries. Boundary balls were coming at a premium and South Africa didn’t want to disrespect India’s magnanimity. From 142 for 5, de Kock added 60 off 54 deliveries with Vernon Philander in less than an hour of batting – absolute gold dust in what is widely not expected to be a high scoring game.
“As a general philosophy, as a batter you go out there to score runs. On a wicket like that you are not going to get many opportunities to score, I’d rather see the batsmen looking to score. And then your last sort of mindset is to leave or defend,” Benkenstein succinctly summed up.
De Kock’s and the lower-order’s runs meant, South Africa’s last-five had scored 144, two more than their top-five. On the other hand, India already find themselves three down and are playing just five specialist batsmen.They are unlikely to be beneficiaries of such generosity from Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada or Morne Morkel. If they do, they’d better cash in just like South Africa did. For this Test match is unlikely to give them another lifeline.