Pure fast bowling is pure thrill. Bowlers howling in, the ball bursting out of their palms, bristling off the deck past the startled eyes of batsmen and smacking into the ’keeper’s gloves. Batsmen gasp, spectators heave. Few spectacles in the game can instinctively set the pulse raising and the hair stand on the end as a fast bowler operating at his peak. At SuperSport Park on Tuesday, it was a common sight. The chief narrative of the series was built around the duel of two supreme fast-bowling sides, and after a batsmen-centric first day, high-class fast bowling packs on both sides took centre-stage. As many as 18 wickets fell, pacers accounting for all of them.
First, in a brilliant display of merciless, destructive seam-bowling, Lungi Ngidi and Kagiso Rabada atoned for their unusual lethargy on the first day by slicing through India, restricting them to 327 from their overnight score of 272/3. Resetting their radar, hitting a bandwidth closer to good length than back-of-length and probing a fifth-stump line, they purchased steep bounce and adequate movement to rattle India’s batsmen.
But India reciprocated in kind, on a surface that has palpably quickened up as it does in these climes when the pitch gets drier and starts to sweat. Mohammed Shami produced a spell for the ages after lunch to cut down the South African line-up as easily as scything corn, and allied with lively spells from Mohammed Siraj and Shardul Thakur reduced them to 197, giving India a lead of 130 runs, which they extended to 146 by stumps. It could have been a lot worse for South Africa had not Temba Bavuma repelled them with a stroke-laden half-century and Rabada and Marco Jansen counterpunched towards the end. They were, to an extent, fortunate that Jasprit Bumrah hobbled off after spraining his ankle and was on the treatment table for most of the day.
Making the ball talk
When Shami was pounding in, Bumrah’s absence was barely felt. There might have been times in the past when Shami had laboured to find the rhythm and length in the first spell of his first innings. Not this time, though, as he settled quickly and the batsmen were unsure whether to play him on the front foot or back. When they chose the latter, he harried them with wicked inward movement; when they made up their mind to stride out, he harassed them with disconcerting bounce off a length. Just at this time, he found some nibble away from right-handed batsmen, making him deadlier.
Poor Keegan Petersen, unsettled by Shami’s sharp bend into the body, unwisely resorted to aggression and found himself chopping one back onto the stumps soon after lunch. Shami was only mildly amused, though the next wicket, that of Aiden Markram, had him deliriously celebrating. There was no elaborate set-up, just spontaneity. A few balls earlier, he had Markram hopping and weaving away from a good-length delivery that climbed into him, and had it been a few inches closer to his body, reprised that S Sreesanth rib-cracker to Jacques Kallis. What followed were length balls that angled, rather than seamed in. Markram thought he knew what was coming. A big nip-backer. And a nip-backer it seemed as the ball hemmed inwardly in the air, before landing and seaming inch-perfectly to trim the off-bail. The bend, arc and laser-guided precision were reminiscent of that great seam-bowling artiste Dale Steyn. Like him, Shami too is an artiste, and has the creativity of one.
His sidekick Siraj is a thruster with boundless energy that hardly goes to waste. A lot of young fast bowlers tend to get overawed and emotional, resulting in fluffing lengths. But Siraj, for all his emotional outpouring, has a calmness that guides him. There is a sharp brain that ticks along, as he strides in. Like a seasoned hunter, Siraj lays his traps. Dexterity of lengths helps too — for he kept inviting Rassie van der Dussen to a drive, and then pulled one back a bit. The latter fell for the bait and edged to Ajinkya Rahane at slips. Siraj was woefully unlucky to not have the wicket of Quinton de Kock next ball, as Rahul spilled the chance he had induced off a skiddy out-swinger. South Africa teetered to 32/4.
— SilentlyFluent (@SilentlyFluent) December 28, 2021
Resistance from hosts
But when everything happens so fast, there may be a little too much urgency on the part of the bowlers. Siraj lost his radar, as he can be prone to doing, although that arguably makes him more dangerous given the unpredictability that goes with it. Shami was exhausted after a searing spell and was played comfortably when he bowled straighter. Without Bumrah, India fell a little flat, as de Kock and Bavuma built a defiant stand of 72 runs.
That’s when Shardul Thakur trundled in. He is neither a thruster nor an artiste, but could be a partnership- breaker, as he has shown on numerous occasions. He induces a false sense of security, and de Kock chopped a harmless ball onto his stumps. Later in the day, he removed Marco Jansen to end a pesky 37-run alliance with Rabada. Shami then returned to devour Rabada for his fifth wicket of the day and 200th in Tests, an incredible feat for someone from the cricketing hinterland of Eastern Uttar Pradesh.
A lead of 130 could be decisive, but it could have been worse had Ngidi and Rabada not torn India apart with a hair-raising spell of hostile bowling. Both were more purposeful and hostile. Rabada was furiously fast and skiddy but could find little of the swing that makes him the most dangerous bowler in the world; Ngidi coaxed disconcerting bounce from a good length. Occasionally, the ball seared past the bat for de Kock to take above his head. Suddenly, uncertainty displaced the assurance that had marked India’s batting on the first day. Rabada’s awkward short ball consumed Rahul, who added just one run to his overnight tally of 122. Ngidi’s thunderous short balls ejected Rahane and Rishabh Pant to set the cat among the pigeons.
Both paired up again to agonise India’s openers late in the day. And though both Rahul and Mayank Agarwal survived the anxious phase, Jansen showed his resourcefulness with Agarwal’s wicket. A day of pure pace and thrill thus ended, promising another two days of much the same brand of music.