It’s a paradox alright! The reason South Africa’s fast bowlers failed to dismiss India before lunch on the opening day of the Johannesburg Test was because the pitch and weather conditions were ridiculously bowler-friendly. It was so incredibly friendly that the five-man pace pack struggled to bowl a single straight ball during the first two sessions of the day. Ironically, that shortcoming played out to India’s advantage.
Being dismissed before lunch on the opening day of a Test is nothing new for India. In 2008, on a helpful track at Ahmedabad, South Africa’s pace bowlers dismissed the team in just 20 overs. And that was in a Test, not a T20 game, mind you.
Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel became unplayable as India were dismissed for 76. Incidentally, that Indian team was packed with acknowledged batting heavyweights like Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Sourav Ganguly, among others.
What really let down the home team’s pack of fast bowlers at the Wanderers Stadium on Wednesday was excessive swing and seam movement during the morning and afternoon sessions; so excessive that the bowlers had little control once the ball left their hand and ended up gifting away six wides — a phenomenon extremely rare in Test cricket!
Vernon Philander and newcomer Lungi Ngidi struggled more than the others to come to terms with the extreme swing and seam movement. Of course Morkel, Kagiso Rabada and Andile Phehlukwayo too failed to bowl a single straight ball during the period. This ensured that India’s batsmen did not have to play at too many deliveries. On other occasions, the ball tended to do so much in the air and off the pitch that the batsmen could not put wood to leather. In fact it took some acrobatic and absolutely brilliant wicketkeeping by Quinton de Kock to ensure that extras did not end up highest run-getter for India.
Skipper Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara, the two best batsmen on the day, were the only ones to get into double figures during the early sessions. Later, in the last session, Bhuvneshwar Kumar came up with invaluable runs to stretch India’s innings to 187. Pujara, pleased as punch at the final total, acknowledged that this was as good as getting a 300-plus total on other pitches.
Earlier, Kohli’s extraordinary batting skills were on display in hostile conditions. He was beaten quite often and was lucky to get reprieves. But he hardly allowed these close shaves to dampen his spirit. On the other hand, he was alert to every scoring opportunity and quickly latched on to any chance to unleash his wide repertoire of strokes.
Pujara looked a strokeless wonder during the period. He also did not have any confidence in his own ability in running between the wickets and hence turned down quite a few certain singles. It provided comic relief at a time when India had little going for them.
Pujara made a mere 27 runs in the four hours before tea. However, after the tea break, against an older ball that tended to swing far less, he helped himself to some pleasing boundaries.
Paradoxically, the old ball was also a major threat to the Indian batsmen, especially as it swung a lot less and hence caught the bat’s edge instead of just going past it. Phehlukwayo, the slowest of the fast bowlers, surprised the batsmen with two straight deliveries and both fetched wickets. In the first instance, the well-set Pujara, expecting the ball to jag back, played inside the line and edged to the wicketkeeper. Later, Hardik Pandya attempted an atrocious pull shot to a slightly short, straight delivery only to sky the catch to the wicketkeeper.
Without doubt there is something to be said about bowlers’ uneasiness with really helpful tracks. The ball does far more than they are accustomed to and this not only spooks them but also makes them feel helpless and inadequate.
In conditions where the ball swings and seams a mile, medium pacers have been known to often bowl with a cross seam in an attempt to minimise or even negate swing. Else the ball swings crazily and beyond their control. Likewise, on spiteful, turning tracks it is the spinner who does not turn the ball who could be the main threat. Others get carried away by the state of the pitch and conditions and tend to do too much, rather than keeping it simply and allowing the conditions to have their say.
On Wednesday, South Africa’s bowlers were guilty of letting India off the hook. Barring Kohli and Pujara, the other batsmen had scores of 8, 0, 9, 2, 0. Yet India managed to accumulate 187 runs, a total that might yet turn out to be a match-winning one, provided the fielders hold on to the catches that swing, seam and widening cracks in the pitch would induce.
All the rains this past week has freshened the pitch and slowed the outfield. India need to make these factors count. Then, and only then, will Kohli’s decision to pack the team with five fast bowlers and yet opt to bat first, be justified.