Aggression was India’s mantra right from the moment this Virat Kohli-led Indian team set foot in South Africa. It was evident even in their bizarre choice of skipping the optional training a day before the Test match. That they seemed quite content to play an away Test series on greener pastures without a single warm-up match again appeared bullish.
But it was expected from this India side. Their confidence stemmed from a ridiculously long sub-continental season where their rich form and unrelenting aggression forced the best of nations to surrender.
The swagger did not die even though the conditions had changed. None of India's players attended the pre-match press conference, another move that disturbed the South African media and showed that India were here to irk, show attitude and barge their way to a Test series win.
At the toss, when Faf du Plessis opted to bat first, Kohli spoke about how his bowling attack would love to have a crack at South Africa early on and even expressed that they hoped to push the visitors onto the backfoot in the first 10 or 15 overs. He then went on to hand over a teamsheet that reeked of aggression.
They had opted to make three strange inclusions, something which set Twitter abuzz. Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli had spoken at length about fighting fire with fire, but few would have expected India to break away from conventions and play Shikhar Dhawan over KL Rahul, Rohit Sharma over Ajinkya Rahane and Jasprit Bumrah over Umesh Yadav.
That this Indian side meant business was revealed the moment Bhuvneshwar Kumar scythed through the top three to stun the hosts. All said and done, India did have enough quality in their bowling to test any quality opposition, but it was their batting that needed to survive the litmus test.
Their five-bowler theory had worked wonders in the sub-continent because they barely needed to look past Dhawan, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli and Rahane for runs. Ashwin at No 6, Hardik Pandya at No 7 and Wriddhiman Saha at No 8 seemed appropriate. But on Vernon Philander's playground, it was biting the bullet.
Rohit's abysmal record in overseas Tests and a lower middle-order that was fairly untested meant that India’a top four just had to fire in South Africa. The hosts’ tail had wagged after the AB de Villiers-du Plessis show and a total of 286 on this Newlands wicket was by no means poor.
When India started their innings late on Day 1, it seemed like du Plessis had made the wrong call at the toss. The ball wasn't doing as much for Philander and Dale Steyn as it did for Bhuvneshwar Kumar earlier in the day and batting seemed a lot easier.
Dhawan even leant into a spectacular cover drive in the first over from Philander. It seemed like the world’s No 1 side had finally made a statement in a country where their record is downright pathetic. Vijay showed exceptional judgement outside his off-stump in the first few overs — something his counterpart, Dean Elgar, had failed to do and all seemed rosy in the Indian dressing room.
And then it happened.
Philander bowled one ball wide outside off-stump, with the swing and seam further taking it away from Vijay and instead of leaving it through to the ‘keeper, the Tamil Nadu opener decided to flirt with it and the outside edge carried comfortably to gully.
You could almost hear the furious scream of Indian fans miles away in South Africa. It was such a disturbingly poor shot from a batsman expected to do well in these conditions. Leaving balls outside the off-stump is bread-and-butter stuff for Vijay.
His rock-solid temperament and composure have so often been praised. But this was so unbecoming of an opener who takes pride in his judgement outside the off-stump.
It happened again.
Dhawan was always prone to short balls. South Africa had exploited it before and did so again. Dale Steyn had teased him outside off-stump enough and gave him a surprise short ball on the chest. Instead of going dogged in defence to a pretty good delivery, Dhawan decided to pull. The ball rested in Steyn's hand after touching the blue skies.
It happened a third time.
Kohli has always had issues outside his off-stump in alien conditions. James Anderson and the English had literally made a mockery of his batting technique way back in 2014. But the Indian skipper had seemingly overcome his weakness or so it appeared in the mountain of runs he racked up in the comfort of familiar conditions back home.
It took Morne Morkel just one ball to remind Indian fans that the demons in Virat Kohli’s batting had never really died. It was a back of a length delivery around the fourth or fifth stump line and instead of letting it through to de Kock, Kohli decided to chase it almost absent-mindedly, and the edge was pouched by the ‘keeper to put India in a soup at stumps on Day 1.
Day 2 appeared different. Almost better. Rohit was not the ideal guy Indian fans wanted out there to complement the doggedness of Pujara. But he had appeared to put a leash on his needless stroke-making. The flamboyance and flair went missing as a different Hitman, one who plays balls or leaves them on merit, took over.
He played out 52 balls for a meagre seven runs. Indian fans, though, seemed pleased. Rohit had been resilient, patient and resolute. They expected the runs to eventually flow. Except that they didn't.
On a wicket like the Newlands, defence can be a double-edged sword. The batsman could make 20 in 100 balls, feel settled at the crease and give it all away on the 101st ball. De Villiers and Quinton de Kock had showed on Day 1 that attack was indeed the best form of defence here. You either attack or show enough patience to hang in there forever.
India’s top-order seemed to be stuck somewhere in between. On his 52nd ball, Rohit flashed hard at Kagiso Rabada outside the off-stump and the edge flew through a vacant fourth slip and into the fence. The lack of runs had led to impatience and sure enough, within seven balls, the middle-order batsman played all around a ball on the stumps to be trapped in front.
Surely, Pujara wouldn't do the same. His monk-like mentality and soft hands had been a treat to watch in a wicketless first hour on Day 2. He had eliminated all kinds of risk from his batting. Knowing that playing on the off-side was risky, Pujara resorted to dead bat defensive shots to anything outside the off-stump or on it, if at all he offered a stroke. For anything on his legs, the No 3 batsman nudged and sneaked runs.
It seemed like the perfect plan. It very well would have been, if he had executed it all day long. Instead, first ball after lunch, Pujara decided to go fishing to a wide one from Philander and the edge carried safely to the cordon.
76/5 turned into 92/7 before the Pandya storm struck South Africa. He showed the top order everything that was lacking in their approach and mindset. While aggression was their mantra every second before they came out to bat on this tour, it bizarrely vanished the moment a fearsome four-prong seam attack lined up to bowl to them.
Pandya showed what a mix of positive intent and intelligent stroke play could lead to. Of course he had his chances with Elgar dropping a sitter and de Kock missing a stumping but the intent and authority he exhibited forced the hosts to change their plans.
You either had to go the Pandya way or stick to the du Plessis way and grit it out there here at Newlands. The top order was stuck in the valley between the two. They did not go for the runs nor did they show the aptitude to fight and stay on at the wicket.
The only two batsmen in the top five to face a considerable number of balls — Rohit and Pujara — threw their wickets away.
Pandya's field day might have given India a boost but with a deficit of 142 and eight further wickets to take in South Africa's second innings, the task is far from complete. This top order needs to learn its lessons and quick. They might, in all likelihood, be facing a 300+ target in the final innings and such ill-timed desires outside the off-stump could land them in a pool of trouble.