There are times when defence is the best form of offence. The Indian team learnt this lesson very painfully at the outset of the South Africa series. It is a lesson that will return to haunt them time and again.
Specifically, India will rue for long their mindless display of aggression which frittered away all the advantage of bowling first on a juicy first-day track. They adopted an all-or-nothing approach, probably over-enthused by the tremendous purchase the pace bowlers had got from the fresh pitch. South Africa were pegged to the wall at 12 for three within the opening five overs. What followed was not a tightening of the screws but a gambit that cast caution to the winds.
Skipper Virat Kohli, instead of making run-gathering difficult and a challenge, left large open gaps in the field and this led to boundaries flowing off the bats of AB de Villiers, skipper Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock.
A total of 30 of the South African innings’ 39 boundaries came during this period and it virtually let them off the hook.
The left-hand batsman Quinton de Kock, who came in at number six, relished the situation as streaky strokes and trademark off-side horizontal-bat shots brought him plenty of boundaries to the vacant third-man and point regions. He scored at a Twenty20 (T20)-like strike-rate of 107, something unbelievable on a pitch that had plenty of life for the fast bowlers.
The classy AB de Villiers and experienced Faf du Plessis too got boundaries far too easily and those 60-odd runs gifted away owing to a poorly thought-out field positioning virtually cost India the Test. A less aggressive field placing could have saved the Indian team 10 to 15 of the boundaries. But that was not to be. Kohli had little time or faith in the time-tested cricket adage: A run saved is a run scored.
Consequently, the 286 scored by South Africa turned out to be the highest total of the match and India were left ruing at what might have been had they been a little more circumspect.
One would have thought that the Indians would have learnt their lessons and thus been a lot more prudent when batting. But it seemed the openers were rattled by the presence of four fast bowlers and hence did not place too much trust in their own ability in seeing off the new ball. They tried to play risky shots in an attempt to ease the pressure and met with grief.
Murali Vijay, usually a very assured batsman who thrives on spending a lot of time at the crease, reached out in uncharacteristic style to flay at a wide ball and was pouched in the slips.
Sikhar Dhawan, an interesting choice over the steadier KL Rahul, was around only because the side wanted to take a chance with him. They have slotted him with a defensive Vijay and ahead of a dour Cheteshwar Pujara in the hope that he can get away with a few streaky hits off the faster bowlers while leaving others mentioned to settle down.
The logic is that too much of defence can play into the hands of the opponents and invite pressure. But these tactics have their time and place. The first day of a Test on a lively pitch was certainly not one of them.
The experienced Dale Steyn used shoulder and wrist to hasten a short-pitched delivery off the pitch. The ball, aimed at his body, came too quickly for Dhawan. His premeditated pull shot was a disaster as the ball cramped him and he was easily caught and bowled.
The two dismissals, both while attempting to play big shots, were catastrophic for India. The openers needed to survive only 11 overs till stumps on the first day. In any match, in any part of the world, the openers would have tried to hang in and lived to fight the next day. But here they not only lost their wickets while going for aggressive shots, but also exposed the team’s best batsmen to the new ball.
The charged-up bowlers now needed to be lucky with just one ball, and they were. The 6 feet-8 inch tall Morne Morkel got a delivery to lift off a length and leave Virat Kohli. It was a superb delivery to a right-handed batsman. Lesser batsmen would not been good enough to get even a touch to that fabulous delivery. But Kohli, unfortunately, got a snick and was caught behind.
It was a crucial wicket. The loss of the three top-order batsmen in the 11 overs before stumps, coming on top of the gifting away of runs, demoralised the team.
Their excessive show of aggression on the opening day, both in batting and field placing, had backfired. It made the difference between victory and defeat, especially as they turned out to be better than the Proteas in the second innings played on a rain-refreshed pitch.
Of course, India certainly need a fair bit of aggression to be competitive. But the same needs to be channelised and timed to suit team’s needs. Blowing up their chances on the opening day was not aggression. It was hara-kiri.