Team India ended the year 2021 on a high by breaching yet another fortress. After conquering Gabba in their historic tour of Australia, followed by the victories in London in the England Test series later this year, India got their tour of South Africa off to a terrific start with a victory in Centurion — venue where the hosts had lost only twice since their readmission in 1991.
South Africa is the only nation where India are yet to win a Test series, with a 1-1 draw in 2010-11 being their best achievement as well as the only instance of them avoiding a series loss. However, the clinical manner with which the Virat Kohli-led visitors wrapped things up inside four days, with Day 2 getting washed out without a single ball bowled, suggests things could end a little differently this time.
Before we set our sights on the New Year’s Test that will be taking place at the Wanderers in Johannesburg, a happy hunting ground for the Indians where they have won thrice in the past, we revisit some of the key talking points from the Centurion Test:
KL Rahul continues to shine overseas
At the start of the year, Rahul wasn’t a certainty as a Test opener given Rohit Sharma had sealed one of the two slots and there was plenty of competition from the likes of Shubman Gill, Prithvi Shaw and his own state teammate Mayank Agarwal for the other.
At the end of the year though, it’s hard to imagine anyone else walking out to open alongside Rohit than the man who’s currently serving as skipper Kohli’s deputy for this series. A stroke of luck on the tour of England led to Rahul getting to open alongside Rohit and since then, he’s produced a series of consistent performances, his 123 at Centurion being the latest. It also further cemented his status as an overseas specialist, with six of his seven Test tons now having been scored abroad.
Rahul started cautiously after India opted to bat at the Supersport Park, but started to express himself not too long after as the Proteas attack started to lose their focus. He remained calm even as the visitors lost two quick wickets after lunch and kept accumulating runs at a steady pace, forming vital partnerships with Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane as India ended the opening day on a commanding 272/3.
It was only fitting for him to get to the three-figure mark along the way, and later be adjudged the Player of the Match.
Pace battery at the fore of yet another victory
Indian cricket owes a huge debt of gratitude to former bowling coach Bharat Arun, ex-head coach Ravi Shastri as well as current Test skipper Kohli for shaping the fast-bowling quartet that has gone on to play an integral role in India’s success in overseas Test campaigns in the last three years.
The trio of Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj hunted like a pack on the spicy Centurion pitch that threw uneven bounce into the mix and made life for batters even more difficult beyond the opening day. All three were relentless in the lines and the lengths bowled to the Proteas, who folded for less than 200 on both occasions as a result.
Shami would become only the fifth Indian pacer to cross the 200-wicket mark in Tests with his match haul of 8/107, including a five-for in the first innings, while Bumrah was terrific in his evening spell on the fourth day, breaking a stubborn fourth-wicket stand by getting rid of Rassie van der Dussen with what can be described as the ball of the match.
What aided the bowlers additionally was the cushion of a 300-plus total in the first innings as well as a stiff target in the second. The Proteas attack produced a much-improved performance in the second innings to dismiss India for 174, but unfortunately, their batters couldn’t quite support their hard work.
India’s senior batters continue to disappoint
While the openers and the bowling unit performed admirably in the Centurion victory, the same unfortunately cannot be said of India’s Nos 3, 4 and 5.
Kohli, who finished a second consecutive year without an international century, got off to a promising start in the first innings as did Rahane, the latter falling short of a fifty by two runs. And as has been the case often in recent years, both inexplicably found a way to see themselves back in the dressing room after settling themselves at the crease with some delectable strokes.
Kohli was once again guilty of poking at wide deliveries after being tempted into driving, finding the outside edge in both essays. Rahane followed his 48 with an attacking 20 before playing a shot too many, hooking a short ball straight to the man at deep square leg.
Pujara was unfortunate to have been dismissed first ball by Lungi Ngidi in the first innings, getting a bat-pad deflection to short leg. He decided to grind the bowlers out on the fourth day, getting to 16 off 63 deliveries before poking at a wide delivery that resulted in yet another catch for Quinton de Kock.
A total of 137 runs across two innings from the senior trio certainly does put a lot of pressure on the rest of the batting unit as well as the bowlers.
A debut to remember for Marco Jansen
A lot of eyebrows were raised after Dean Elgar announced that they would be handing young Marco Jansen an international debut, including him in a lineup that had Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi as the other frontline seamers and Wiaan Mulder as the bowling all-rounder.
Five days later though, Jansen’s selection over Duanne Olivier stood vindicated on the part of the team leadership. Though he was off to a nervy start, conceding a boundary off a full toss on his first delivery in international cricket and struggling with his lines on Day 1, he was a different bowler in the second innings as he used his left-arm angle as well as his height to good use to help restrict the Indians to a meagre 174 on Day 4.
— Cricket South Africa (@OfficialCSA) December 29, 2021
Perhaps the think-tank wanted some variety by bringing in a left-armer, which could’ve been the reason along with Olivier’s fitness issues, which was the official explanation from the selectors.
His figures of 4/55 in the second innings included the prized wicket of Kohli — the man he had bowled to at the nets in Jo’burg three years ago — which might just help him get retained in the XI for the remainder of the series and serve as a launchpad for him to cement his place in the side.
Elgar and Bavuma’s grit
A large part of the blame for South Africa’s loss at a venue considered their fortress would go to the insipid batting performance across the two innings that saw the Proteas crumble under intense pressure from both ends and lose wickets in clusters.
There were however, a couple of performances that stood out, and gives the team some hope going forward. Temba Bavuma mounted a rescue in the company of de Kock on the third day, guiding them to 109/5 at lunch after they had been reduced to 31/4, and it was his half-century, along with a fightback from the lower order, that helped the Proteas avoid follow-on and finish close to the 200-mark.
Skipper Elgar’s 77 in the 305-run chase could’ve been considered a standout knock from the match had it not been for Rahul’s ton, given that the southpaw’s gritty innings came at the face of some intense fast-bowling from Bumrah, Shami and Siraj while Rahul had scored a majority of runs on a day the South Africans weren’t quite hitting the right areas.
Elgar stood tall even after the Indians got rid of Markram early, and his presence at the crease gave Proteas hope not just of salvaging a draw, but even pulling off an unlikely win. However, his exit, along with the dismissal of de Kock, meant it was only a matter of time before the visitors wrapped things up on the final day.
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