Right through the first session Ravichandran Ashwin must have wondered if by chance the Chennai curator had been put in charge of the Centurion pitch!
He was getting the ball to grip and turn, a feat rarely, if ever, experienced in the opening session of a Test match outside the sub-continent, let alone a reputed pace-friendly pitch like the Centurion. There was even a puff of dust flying off the surface each time the ball pitched on certain spots. The experts, probably as perplexed as Ashwin, tried to explain it away as grass flying off the pitch!
Ashwin wasn’t complaining. On the other hand, he was delighted that his skipper was so dependent on his bowling that he had been entrusted with one-third of the day’s bowling. Ashwin had never bowled so many overs — 31 to be precise — on the opening day of a Test outside the sub-continent and the fact that he bagged 50 percent of the six wickets which fell was proof of his value to the team on this track.
Had substitute fielder Ravindra Jadeja been a little more alert at mid-wicket and pouched Keshav Maharaj, Ashwin would have been more productive on the day.
Later, at the media briefing, Ashwin revealed that he might not have played had there been grass on the pitch.
“I was very happy that grass was taken off the pitch, else we might have fielded a four-seamer attack. However, we were pleasantly surprised when we walked into the ground on the eve of the Test. The grass had been shaved off and the pitch looked white in colour.
“On Saturday morning, before the toss, we noticed that the pitch was the sort that called for a spinner. I knew I was in the game.
“I decided that I needed to be patient and keep pegging away. The intent was to keep it simple, stick to line and length and not try too many variations. The four wickets that we finally picked up in the last session kept us in the game. Otherwise South Africa would have run away to a huge total.”
What he left unsaid was the absence of a supporting spinner from the other end. Probably, if Jadeja had also played, the attack would have been that much more lethal on this pitch.
The condition of the pitch seemed to have caught many off guard, including the teams’ selectors. South Africa, who ought to have been aware of the sort of pitch being prepared, too have gone in for four pacemen, with 21-year-old Lungi Ngidi being given his Test cap. But at least the home side have the services of part-time left-arm spinner Dean Elgar to complement their frontline spinner Maharaj. India have no such cushion as Ashwin is the sole spinner in the five-bowler attack.
So is the Centurion pitch an aberration, like Ahmedabad in 2008 when a South African pace attack gleefully ripped out the Indian team on a grassy first session track for a measly 76 and in less than 20 overs?
It is possible that the drought conditions prevailing in South Africa would have left the pitch dry, though Ashwin did state that the moisture in the pitch enabled him to get some purchase in the first session.
The puzzle though was the lack of South African-type bounce at Centurion which has a huge reputation of being pace bowler-friendly. In the past there were constant murmurs that South African curators prepared pitches to suit the tall home team fast bowlers’ length. Though nothing was proved, they were said to excessively roll and prepare the pitch width-wise, rather than conventional length-wise, with particular attention devoted to their fast bowlers’ landing areas.
This is nothing new. One Indian spinner too was said to measure out his landing areas with tape and request home curators to leave that area slightly under-prepared!
The indications after the first day’s play are that this pitch is not as treacherous as the one at Newlands. Thus, India’s batsmen should be a lot more comfortable at finding their feet here.
As for the bowling, the inability of the fast bowlers to reverse swing the ball was perplexing. Vernon Philander did it excellently in Newlands where the pitch was not as scruffy. Mohammed Shami, touted as India’s best fast bowler, looked pedestrian with both new ball and old ball. Skipper Virat Kohli was so disappointed with his bowling that he used him sparingly.
Luckily Ashwin, who in the past had struggled in overseas conditions, came good and that, along with Hardik Pandya’s momentary brilliance to run out Hashim Amla, saved the day.