"If it's going to be tough for our batsmen, we will make it tough for their batsmen," Ravi Shastri, in his quintessential flamboyant style, beamed in the pre-departure conference.
The way Bhuvneshwar Kumar started off the South African tour, it seemed as if the Indian bowlers were about to enter that 'Shastri-Warning mode'. The Uttar Pradesh-pacer dismantled the Protea top-order to press the early wake-up call button. On a track that assisted pace and bounce, Bhuvneshwar hit the right lengths and confounded the batsmen with two-way movement. Suddenly, the excitement was at its peak. South Africa's batting coach Dale Benkenstine almost hired an Uber back to the hotel room after witnessing the first five overs of the tour.
"Luckily our phones get taken away otherwise I would have been looking for an Uber to get back to the hotel," Benkenstein quipped after first day's play.
This was the Indian pace attack that elicited purrs from former players and the chairman of selectors before the tour. MSK Prasad described the five-pronged pace attack of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah, along with all-rounder Hardik Pandya as one of the best bowling attacks to have toured South Africa.
While the bowling unit had the experience and maturity in their arsenal, one of the most crucial factors was adaptability. Their ability to master the skill with the Kookuburra ball. Their ability to get used to the conditions early and most importantly, hitting the right lengths depending on the bounce on the pitch.
"Adaptability is key. I think each wicket is different and we cannot generalise conditions. What matters will be the tactical adaptability to a particular pitch and during various sessions during a day," Javagal Srinath, one of India's most successful pacers in South Africa, had said about the biggest challenge in South Africa.
Amidst time crunch, the preparations started in full swing. India opted for practice sessions over a warm-up match where they doctored the pitches coupled with match simulations to get a feel of the conditions.
"When it comes to batsmen, there is the bounce factor. But that is a factor for the bowlers too. The Kookaburra is the toughest ball to bowl with. It does not do too much after 25-30 overs, so these are the kind of situations we are trying to prepare for." Bhuvneshwar Kumar told reporters ahead of the first Test.
"Yesterday, we did two sessions to get into the Test mode. It is a six-hour day in a Test match so we bowled twice. We wanted to bowl as long as possible," he added.
When Bhuvneshwar was bowling preternatural lengths in the opening spell, just for a moment it seemed as if the preparations were starting to reap rewards, until the AB de Villiers-lightening struck. The 31-year-old went on the counter-attack in the ninth over. A couple of full balls were driven for consecutive fours and good length deliveries were slashed away for boundaries. De Villiers was playing very late and it was a clever ploy to upset the rhythm of the bowlers. He disturbed the lengths of the bowlers and that's where the Indian bowlers lost their discipline. Du Plessis wedded caution with aggression as the pair added 114 for the fourth wicket to provide South Africa some stability.
"They are a quality bowling attack and that stage I was sitting there wondering how we were going to score a run," Benkenstine said after the first day's play. "The genius of AB de Villiers and the tenacity of the captain, that partnership got us back in the game and got that belief back in the change room. I think it was just one over where AB just changed the game. He made the bowlers have to worry about their lengths."
The Indian bowlers didn't allow the duo to score big but were frustrated by the lower-middle and lower order largely because they didn't hit the right lengths consistently after that De Villiers burst. Bhuvneshwar didn't get the desired support. Often, good length deliveries were punctuated by full and leg-stump balls which were hit for boundaries, and this didn't allow Indian bowlers to build sustained pressure. The last five wickets added 144 runs. Those small South African partnerships cruelly pricked at India's hopes like voodoo needles.
"If we want to be hard on ourselves, then yes we did give away a few too many runs to South Africa. I think they scored 25-30-odd extra runs. In every hour of play, there were 2-3 overs, where we gave away easy boundaries. That is an area we can improve on," Bhuvneshwar said after first day's play.
India conceded almost four runs an over (3.90) and it was South Africa's ploy to take the aggressive route that made the Indian pacers veer off their track and Maharaj's drop in the slips by Shikhar Dhawan only added insult to the injury.
"It is a concern. During the break also, we were talking about bringing the run-rate down because in Test cricket four runs per over is a lot," Bhuvneshwar continued.
Irfan Pathan, one of the best swing bowlers in his hey days, had asserted the importance of length before the start of the series.
"Length will be the key and if they hit a good length consistently on those kind of pitches, then they will really do well. They all have the ability."
And on a lively Newlands track, with extra bounce on offer, good and short of length deliveries were of prime importance. Somehow they pacers didn't achieve consistency.
According to Cricviz, the Indian pacers bowled 27 percent full deliveries (0 to 6 meters from the batsman's stumps), 46 percent on good length (6 to 8 meters) and 26 percent short (eight plus meters).
While the South African pace battery showed exactly how it's done, Hardik Pandya's heroics with the bat kept India alive in the match. A 77-run lead looked daunting but not insurmountable. Over the years, it would be the batsmen who would create opportunities for a rare away win. However, at the Newlands, a largely improved bowling unit led India's fightback. Late on Day Two, Pandya rounded off a perfect day with two wickets after South Africa's 50-run opening stand.
Fresh from a day's break, the pace battery stepped up the aggression on the fourth morning. Yes, there was assistance from the moisture on the pitch which was covered throughout the third day. However, they hit the right lengths which was the key and this time, bowlers exerted relentless pressure. Bhuvneshwar's support system was wide awake. Shami and Bumrah got the ball to seam and zip off the surface which sparked a sudden turnaround.
The adaptability was palpable: The Indian pacers bowled 53 percent good length deliveries, seven more than in first innings and 28 percent on the short. They cut down on full length deliveries by eight percent. 17 wickets in the Cape Town Test was the joint second most the Indian pacers have taken in a Test played in Australia/England/New Zealand/South Africa. They have achieved this feat just four times in the past and bettered it just once, back in 1996 when they amassed 18 in Durban.
The past horrors once again played on the loop as Indian batting succumbed to relentless aggression, accuracy and precision from the South Africa. However, Kohli managed to find out some positives.
"Bowlers learned pretty quickly from the first innings, whatever mistakes needed to be corrected. We kept pulling things back against a side which is very strong at home," Kohli said in the presentation ceremony.
"Definitely, we feel for the bowlers because they bowled their hearts out. A guy like Jasprit (Bumrah) bowled beautifully in his first Test match, he troubled the batsmen a lot this morning. Mohammed Shami bowled his heart out, Bhuvi was good as well and not having done the job, they will also be gutted about it," Kohli continued in the post-match conference.
With the Indian batting line-up faltering and the pitches at SuperSport Park and New Wanderers expected to be spicier, India might not have the luxury of going in with a three-man pace attack as they might opt for an extra batsman, but the rapid improvement shown by the pacers in the second innings has kept the positivity alive. There have been instances in the past where the pace attack has fizzled away, it happened in Johannesburg on the last tour, it happened in England after the historic Lord's win, and this is why it is extremely crucial to carry forward the momentum with same energy and verve.
For a change, the 'batsmen scoring runs is of little value if you don't get 20 wickets' narrative of the past has turned into 'taking 20 wickets is of little value if you don't bat well'.