Yet another day’s play of Test cricket in India has belonged entirely to the hosts. Victorious in 24 of their last 30 home games since 2013 – and having lost only once in the time period – India’s dominance of South Africa extended Northwards as the teams made the trip up to Pune from Vizag, the venue of India’s comprehensive 203-run win in the Test series opener.
Both teams made one similar change to their lineups, with a third pacer being added to both playing XIs as a sign of the common gauge of the Pune surface.
Rohit Sharma’s flying start to life as a Test opener was grounded with an early dismissal, but with fellow opener Mayank Agarwal continuing his sharp beginning to life as a Test player, Day 1 at the MCA Stadium fell in India’s favour – right from the start.
Another toss, another loss
Surely it’s getting to all of them now. Faf du Plessis called incorrectly for the ninth consecutive Test match in Asia, also making it six straight Tests where he has had to concede decision-making rights to his rival captain.
The Proteas skipper put on a happy face, trying to shirk off the annoyance by saying it pinched more to have lost the toss in the first Test – but once again, du Plessis and his team, already facing the tall order of challenging this Indian team in its own den, saw the odds lengthen against them even before a ball was bowled.
There’s only so much you do about the tossing of a coin, but perhaps the South African team management has had enough and could consider taking a leaf from the Australian women’s team and their recent ‘toss tactics’!
Rabada’s usage – and the lack of it
It may seem counter-intuitive to bring this point up on a day where the bowler in question picked up all wickets to fall during play, but did South Africa really use Kagiso Rabada to best potential on the opening day at Pune?
A cursory glance at the scorecard might suggest otherwise, because you will find 18.1 overs in front of Rabada’s name – a more-than-fair share, at first glance, on a day where 85.1 overs were bowled in total by a five-man bowling attack.
But 10 of those 18.1 Rabada overs were delivered in the first 25 overs that constituted the opening session. Which means the Indian batsmen, in the next 60 overs they faced, only had to tackle the strongest suit from the opposition camp for a sum total of 8.1 overs – 2.1 of which were bowled only after the second new ball was taken after 80 overs.
From overs 26 to 80, a 330-ball passage through which India gathered 172 runs for the loss of two wickets to firm up their advantage, they only needed to front up to Rabada on a total of 36 occasions – this despite those 36 balls actually accounting for India’s two set batsmen, Mayank Agarwal and Cheteshwar Pujara.
It’s understandable, of course, that any team will be extra careful in the workload management of their premier fast bowler, especially after he delivers as many as 10 overs in the first session of the game. But when Agarwal and Pujara returned to the middle after lunch, they were allowed 23 overs – a period where they asserted themselves on the game – before needing to see Rabada again.
And guess what? Rabada needed only two overs to break the defining partnership of the day.
Proteas pacers lose their length
Rabada, quite obviously, posed the greatest threat to the hosts whenever he did bowl, his wickets neatly distributed as one-per-session. But outside of his opening spell, with the exception of the ball that got Agarwal, Rabada was at times guilty of a common failing for the South African pace attack during the opening day’s action.
The visitors, despite getting the best use of whatever juice lay in the MCA Stadium track – clearly enough to make both captains go in with three pacers – let themselves down by not hitting the right areas, pretty much all through the day barring the first session.
Vernon Philander kept things tight in the morning, as he usually does, but once the swing reduced, he offered little in terms of a threat to the Agarwal-Pujara combine. Where he really disappointed, though, was in the three overs he bowled with the second new cherry – going for 18 runs as he gave Virat Kohli a steady stream of full and loose deliveries that the Indian captain gleefully lapped up.
Rabada, in comparison, was a lot more probing, but having got more than a few to rear up from good length, and having seen the impact of the balls he delivered in the right ‘channel’, he might go back to his hotel room and contemplate what if he had found that channel a little more consistently through his latter spells.
The biggest let-down, however, was the new draft – if Anrich Nortje was handed his maiden Test cap to pepper the Indian top-order with pace, he fell short half-way; there was a lot of pace, but close to zero peppering. The clearly thought out ploy of banging it into the surface fell flat, as a general lack of direction in his shorter deliveries meant that despite their 145 kmph plus speed, they failed to have the kind of impact they were meant to. A first spell of 5 overs for 27, and overall figures of 13 overs for 60, all wicketless, meant South Africa were left ruing their change.
No teeth from the spinners
Even making exception for the lack of purchase for spin on a first day Pune wicket, du Plessis and Co weren’t aided by the continuing toothlessness of their spinners.
At Vizag, the three-fold combine of Keshav Maharaj, Senuran Muthusamy and Dane Piedt only accounted for seven wickets in their 131 overs – but what hurt South Africa much more in the final calculations was that those 131 overs saw India score at a rate of 4.66; 610 out of India’s match tally of 825 runs were scored from less than two-thirds of the total overs they faced.
Piedt, the least effective of the trio, was made to sit out in Pune, but the two left-arm-orthodox survivors didn’t cover themselves in glory.
Muthusamy, it seems quite clear, maintained his spot for his batting – 82 unbeaten runs through the two innings at Vizag, where he was only called on to bowl 18 overs. There was no increase in confidence from his skipper at Pune either, with the newcomer only being given six overs on Day 1.
Vastly more demoralising for du Plessis, arguably, was the ineffectiveness of his seasoned campaigner. Maharaj, in a lion’s share of 29 overs, barely troubled India’s batsmen; wickets didn’t look like they were around the corner, and his usual frugality wasn’t entirely present either as those 29 overs brought 89 runs for India.
Last year, in Sri Lanka, Maharaj had bounced back from a fairly insipid first Test display with his record-breaking 9/129 in the first innings of the second Test. That’s, clearly, not happening in Pune – but South Africa require much, much more from their senior-most bowler if they are to pose a semblance of a challenge to India, in this game, or further on in the series.