How does it feel?
"Umm...I don't know. It hasn't sunk in yet. It hasn't really sunk in yet but first and foremost it's a Test win for South Africa. The last four days have really pushed us to different levels and areas within our team and the guys have responded brilliantly with regards to certain request that I asked of. It's great to know that we've accomplished a Test win."
A chuffed Elgar's words in the post-match press conference after the win over India at the Wanderers spoke as much about the magnanimity of the victory as the character of the side. After going down 1-0 at Centurion, a determined and resolute South Africa bounced back hard to draw level 1-1. It was the manner of the win that stood out as South Africa chased down the third-highest total ever chased successfully against India in the history of Tests - 240 - with seven wickets to spare. In the process, South Africa registered their first win over India at the Wanderers. It was another fascinating Test with a lot of subplots that played a role in shaping the result of the Test. We take a look at the key takeaways from the Test.
Shardul stakes claim for a permanent spot in crowded pace talent
Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Siraj.
The rise of the Indian pace attack has been one of the biggest stories in world cricket in the last few years. It has become a firebreathing dragon that has toppled the best teams in the world, home and away. And when you have the above names in your arsenal and with talented youngsters waiting in the wings it's very difficult to break open the starting eleven door.
Shardul Thakur probably stands sixth in the line of the pace bowling options. But the fact that he can bat helps him climb the pecking order. He has been the fourth bowling option in South Africa, behind Bumrah, Shami and Siraj. A sidekick to the trio. He was handed the ball for just 16 overs out of the 130 India bowled in the first match. However, in Johannesburg, he took the center stage with a scintillating spell that turned the match around.
Dean Elgar and Keegan Petersen had steadied the ship after Aiden Markram fell early and taken South Africa to 85/1. They trailed by just 117 after India were bowled out for 202 in the first innings. They desperately needed a wicket before lunch. And just like he's been doing for a long time in white-ball, Thakur attended the call.
In an inspired spell of fast bowling before lunch on Day 2, Thakur dismantled the South African middle order with 3/8 in 4.5 overs, sending back the set Elgar, Petersen and Rassie van der Dussen to bring India right back in the match. He swung, seamed, beat the outside and inside edges. He was buzzing. It was one of the best spells one could witness in Test cricket. He had found his rhythm. He had found extra energy and he was all over the batsmen.
Bavuma and Verreynne steadied the ship again but it was Shardul again who broke the crucial stand, getting Vereynne and in back-to-back overs to clinch his five-for. He added two more to his bag - Marco Jansen (21) who was helping South Africa build a crucial lead with some brisk runs and Lungi Ngidi to end with figures of 7-61 - the best by an Indian bowler against South Africa and in South Africa.
Shardul has been an impact player. A partnership breaker. He carry forwarded the momentum while batting, hitting a brisk 24-ball 28 to add crucial runs with India struggling at 184/6 in the second innings.
And then broke the 47-run opening stand in South Africa's 2nd innings trapping a set Markram (31) LBW.
Thakur had to wait long for his chance. And when he got one, luck deserted him as he hobbled off with a groin strain after bowling just 1.4 overs against West Indies on his Test debut four years ago. And then he had to wait again.
He however has made most of the chances presented to him amid intense competition. He lends balance to the side with his ability to score crucial runs down the order. And with this performance in Johannesburg, he's staked a claim for a permanent spot in crowded pace talent.
Pujara-Rahane click at crucial juncture
Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have bailed India out of difficult and pressure situations many a time. However, for the last couple of years, they have faced the additional challenge of dragging themselves out of pressure situations. The outside noise had been growing. The senior duo have travelled a bumpy ride in the last two years. Runs have come at a premium and with other talents waiting in the wings, the pressure has been growing.
In the last three years, since February 2019, Pujara has averaged 27.44 (23.91 since 5 Feb 2021) and the century drought has extended to 46 innings. Rahane, meanwhile, since that century in Melbourne in December 2020, has averaged just 21.48 with three fifties.
After scores of 3 and 0 in the first innings in Johannesburg, another failure in the second innings could have been fatal.
Well, as luck would have it, the under-fire duo walked out to bat in an under-pressure situation with both the openers back in the hut and India effectively 17/2.
Both Pujara and Rahane played started off aggressively and put the pressure back on South Africa. They punished the loose balls, and there were quite a few. Pujara wasn't afraid of going hard at the pulls early on and then he followed them up with powerful drives through the off and on sides. You generally don't see Pujara go that hard at the ball to start off his innings but here he was batting with intent. Yes, he didn't look completely in control and edged a few but he put the pressure right back on the bowlers.
Rahane is at his best when he is batting fluently and he played some stylish shots which included a special cover drive and an on drive. He smashed Jansen over deep point for a six too and what stood out was his placement. He found gaps regularly and timed the ball superbly The two ran between the wickets well. Pujara (53 off 86 balls) brought up his fifty off just 62 balls while Rahane (58 off 78 balls) brought up his off 67 balls. It was Pujara's fastest fifty away from home. The handshake and passionate fist bump as Rahane celebrated his half-century spoke as much about their determination as the relief. And it was a stunning counter-attack which bailed India out of early trouble. On a challenging pitch, both the batsmen played probably their best innings' in a while. They had turned back the clock.
A 111-run partnership off 144 balls, scored at a run rate of 4.5 with India in early trouble: The senior men couldn't have chosen a more perfect time to get back some form and prove their worth.
"There are times when, if you're going through bad form, there will be questions, no doubt about that, but we are confident players, myself and Ajinkya, we know we are working hard on our game, and there's a saying - form is temporary, class is permanent, so I feel that it applies here," Pujara said after third day's play.
The duo couldn't convert the fifties and the century drought has lengthened but this performance would have given them a huge confidence boost heading into the deciding Test and may be a bit more breathing space.
Rishabh Pant rides a roller-coaster
Rishabh Pant was omnipresent at the Wanderers - flying, leaping, diving and pouching brilliant catches. He had been immense behind the stumps. It was a testament to the improvement he's undergone as a keeper. His keeping had come under the scanner early in his career but there has been a marked improvement in the last 12 months. It has been on display on this South African tour. It's a different challenge to keep on the fast and bouncy pitches of South Africa and so far it's been a great learning curve for the young Pant. It's his first tour of the Rainbow Nation and he's impressed so far. He took a brilliant diving catch of Bavuma diving full length to his left, down the leg side in the first innings.
He, however, hasn't had the best of times with the bat on the tour. He's scored just 59 runs from four innings at an average of 14.75. He did play a crucial knock of 34 in the second innings of the last Test but his manner of dismissal in the second innings at a crucial juncture garnered spotlight and received criticism. He charged down the Rabada for a wild swing off only his third ball but only managed to edge it to the keeper with India in a tricky spot at 167/4 having lost the set Rahane and Pujara in quick succession. There was a need for a partnership. Yes, Pant plays like that. He lives by the sword and dies by it. But over the months he's developed the temperament and displayed patience at the crease and played long innings. And played audacious shots as well but maybe the situation demanded Pant to spend some more time in the middle before going for those shots. Sunil Gavaskar wasn't impressed with the shot and lambasted Pant on air.
“You had two new batsmen at the crease and then you saw that shot from Rishabh Pant," Gavaskar said on air. "Forgettable, no excuses for that shot. None of that nonsense that it’s his natural game. There is supposed to be a bit of responsibility shown because there are others taking the blows. There are guys like Rahane who has taken the blow, guys like Pujara who have taken it on their body. So you also fight it out."
After the match, coach Rahul Dravid hinted at having conversations with Pant around the timing of his shots.
"We know Rishabh plays positively and he plays in a particular manner and has got him a little bit of success," Dravid said in post-match conference. "But of course, there are times when we are going to have to have some sort of level of conversations around that...it is just little-bit or maybe selection of the time to play that (shot).
"No one is going to ever tell Rishabh (Pant) not to be a positive player or not to be an aggressive player but sometimes it is just the question of picking and choosing the time to do that," Dravid said when specifically asked whether he was upset with Pant's shot.
"I think it's, you have just come in, maybe giving yourself a little more time might be a little bit more advisable but look I mean in the end we know what we are getting with Rishabh.
"He is a really positive player, he is someone who can change the course of the game very quickly for us, so naturally won't take that away from him and ask him to become something very different.
"But sometimes, it is just about just figuring out what is the right time to maybe attack and playout (a) slightly difficult period that sets the game up for you or sets your innings up. So, I mean he (Pant) is learning."
Overall, Pant hasn't had the best of away from home in the last few matches. After the high of Brisbane, he's averaged just 18.63 in the last six matches with just one half-century.
A few low-scoring innings doesn't make him a bad batsman. And there is very little probability that he will get dropped for the final Test. He's hit big centuries away from home in the past and he would look to take inspiration from those and make a significant contribution in the final Test to end on a high.
Resolute SA batters stand tall after struggles
It was their batting that let South Africa down in the last match. They were bowled out inside 200 in both the innings and only two batsmen managed to get a fifty-plus score - Bavuma (55 in first innings) and Elgar (77 in second innings). They lacked the partnerships and temperament. There was only one fifty-run stand in the match.
Elgar rued the lack of runs and not following the basics in batting. There was also a case of lack of match time with not much first-class or international cricket. The South African team is going through a transitional phase with AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis retired and mid-series, even Quinton de Kock announced shock Test retirement. This is a relatively inexperienced batting line-up. South Africa's batting has been inconsistent in the last couple of years. They have had the third-worst batting average per wicket of 26.38, only Zimbabwe and West Indies have had a poorer average. In this period (Before the Wanderers Test), only three batsmen had scored a century - Elgar, Aiden Markram and Faf du Plessis. Only two players (who have played over five Tests) had averaged over 40 (Elgar and Bavuma).
Elgar wanted his batsmen to stand up to the challenge in the second Test. And they did answer his call in the second innings at the Wanderers. Elgar's 77 in the second innings at Centurion had somewhat set the tone. The Proteas improved a bit in the first innings at Wanderers but failed to capitalise on starts. They threw away their wickets. Keegan Petersen and Bavuma got fifties but couldn't convert them into big ones.
They however learnt lessons and implemented them in the second innings. On a challenging pitch, against one of the best bowling attacks, chasing 240, their batsmen showed determination and resolve. They displayed good temperament as Elgar led the way taking blows after blows, standing strong at the wicket. They were compact in their defence and put away the bad balls. It was an achievement in itself to defy this bowling attack. Factor this, it was the third-highest fourth innings chase by any team against India in Test history. It was only the second time a 200-plus target had been chased down against Indian since 2000. Elgar remained unbeaten on 96 and hit the winning runs. He spent close to three hours at the crease in the first innings and five hours in the second. They stitched four fifty-plus stands and two-fourth plus stands as well.
"Again, a lot of testament goes to our batters," Elgar said in the presentation ceremony. "We've been struggling a little bit over the past few seasons to get a stable batting line-up, retirements and that has happened and we had to fulfill those roles and we've had to be very patient. We've obviously entrusted those positions with guys that we feel can fulfill those roles and, it was great to see and pull it off in the second innings under not easy conditions. Let's put it that way. It speaks volumes for us."
Apart from Elgar, the other batters still need to prove they can bat long and dig deep. However, this performance will go a long way in helping them gain confidence ahead of the deciding Test and more importantly providing a steep learning curve in their careers.
Did South Africa get Keshav Maharaj's selection wrong?
Keshav Maharaj bowled 18 overs in the first innings of the first Test and gave away runs at 3.22. He wasn't given the ball in the second innings.
In the Wanderers Test, he was given just two overs. One each in the first and second innings. It raises the question as to what is the role of Maharaj? Is he a wicket-taking bowler or a holding one?
In comparison, R Ashwin bowled 43.4 overs in the two Tests. He managed to take three wickets as well.
This is not a criticism of Maharaj but it's more about the team combination. It's tough on Maharaj as well because he isn't given enough opportunity to make an impact. Given South Africa's batting struggles, they could have gone with an extra batsman in Ryan Rickelton or Sarel Erwee. Or may be all-rounder Wiaan Mulder.
Asked in the post-match conference whether they were satisfied with how they utilised all 11 players and whether there will be any changes for the last Test, Elgar said, "Look, you select a team for full five days of cricket. We didn't have the opportunity to obviously use a guy like Kesh (Maharaj). He would have come into the mix on day 4 and 5 if the Test was going to go that duration. I am still happy with the eleven guys we chose. The guys put their hands up and executed exactly what they had to. You select a team for five days of cricket, you don't select a team for two days of cricket. I can't doubt or fault our team selection."
It will be interesting to see whether South Africa pick Maharaj at Cape Town where the spinners have averaged 45.95 and have taken 22 wickets in the last five years in comparison to the pacers who average 22.95 and have picked up 160 wickets.
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