India vs South Africa 1st Test: Proteas’ fortress conquered

India went to lunch smelling victory. Rishabh Pant had been enquiring about the lunch menu in between his words of encouragement to the bowlers. One of them was reserved for Ravichandran Ashwin: “Ball bhi accha hai, tappa bhi achcha hai (the ball is good, as also the bounce).”

At lunch on Day 5, South Africa were 182/7 despite an early caught-and-bowled reprieve for Dean Elgar and Ashwin looking a little flat on a fifth-day pitch with some visible cracks. But the Proteas batting line-up didn’t have the quality or experience to make those opportunities count. Elgar and Temba Bavuma showed resolve. But India’s pace attack was relentless and the hosts duly surrendered to lose the first Test by 113 runs. Chasing 305 for victory, their second innings folded up for 191.

After Fortress Gabba, Fortress Centurion was breached, 29 years after India first toured the Rainbow Nation.

In 26 Tests before this, South Africa had won 21 and lost only two at this venue. Their last defeat here came against Australia seven years ago. The hosts’ apparent invincibility at Centurion added more gloss to India’s win, notwithstanding the fact that the Saffers are on a rebuilding phase. Even without the injured Anrich Nortje, they boasted a very good pace attack. KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal neutered them with a 117-run opening partnership on the first day, batting first in overcast conditions. Eventually, that proved to be the difference.

Rahul went on to score a magnificent hundred and deservingly got the Man-of-the-Match award. Since returning to the Test fold in England earlier this year, the opener has revelled in his batting discipline. It was an effort he should be proud of. “It will be right up there,” Rahul said at the post-match press conference.

The victory was achieved 11 minutes after lunch, making the weather forecast, that predicted a mid-afternoon thundershower, redundant. Elgar’s wicket was important. A tough cookie, the South African captain showed plenty of gumption, scoring 77 and threatening to take the fight to India, through a 36-run fifth wicket partnership with Bavuma. But Jasprit Bumrah, who else, removed Elgar, bowling from around the wicket and nipping the ball back into the left-hander just enough to trap him leg-before. Bumrah had opened the game for the tourists on the fourth day by cleaning up Rassie van der Dussen and Keshav Maharaj. On Thursday, he added finality to the outcome, returning with 3/50 in the second innings. As Virat Kohli said at the post-match presentation, India’s victory margin would have been bigger if an ankle twist wouldn’t have reduced Bumrah’s bowling time in the first innings to just 7.2 overs.

Spare a thought for Mohammed Shami, who spearheaded India’s attack in the first innings with a five-for. He added three more scalps to his tally in the second to have a match haul of 8/107. The cat-and-mouse game with Marco Jensen was one of the highlights of the final day. Twice the young allrounder had been lured into front-foot drives through the covers with back-to-back fuller deliveries. Consecutive boundaries ensued. His prey nicely set up, Shami dragged his length back a touch, moved the ball a shade from an impeccable fourth-stump line to induce a nick to the wicketkeeper. “Shami is an absolutely world-class bowler, among the top three seam bowlers in the world for me. Very, very happy for him to get 200 wickets and have an impactful performance,” Kohli told host broadcasters after the game.

Everyone contributes

Indian pacers love to bowl in tandem. They complement each other. The team culture and the enhanced self-belief of the side have allowed youngsters like Mohammed Siraj to get into the groove straightaway. Siraj took the important wicket of Quinton de Kock on Day 5, the final-day pitch playing a bit up and down and the ball keeping low to take the bottom edge onto the stumps. An unnecessary throw on his follow-through to Bavuma, that hurt the batsman, was his only transgression. He is likely to get a talking-to from the match referee for taking his aggression too far. But Siraj promptly apologised to Bavuma and received a classy thumbs-up from the latter.

The India-versus-South Africa series is usually played in very good spirit and the on-field camaraderie was visible between some IPL team-mates. Bumrah smiled after beating his Mumbai Indians team-mate de Kock outside the off stump. The left-hander responded with a sheepish grin.

Since winning the Johannesburg Test in 2018, India have won back-to-back Test series in Australia and are currently leading 2-1 in England in a five-match series, the last Test of which would be played next year following its Covid-forced postponement in September. India have collectively grown as a team, keeping ‘outside noise’ and reported dressing-room misgivings at arm’s length. When Siraj was brought into the attack on Thursday, Cheteshwar Pujara walked up to Kohli and advised him to keep a fielder at mid-wicket instead of an extra man on the off-side. Pujara wanted protection for the bowler’s stock incoming delivery. His captain readily obliged and changed the field.

Ashwin brought the finish with successive wickets of Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi, rounding things off nicely for his team. Nobody going wicketless from this game would be counted as a real positive.

For South Africa, they were outclassed. But they would carry Bavuma’s batting, Elgar’s grit and the fast bowlers’ form to the second Test that starts on January 3.

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