In the immediacy of the Johannesburg Test which ended a day prematurely on Thursday, Sunil Gavaskar was at pains to point out that this was a match South Africa won, rather than India lost.
The legendary opener’s assertion was based on the fact that in India’s 90 years in Test cricket, only twice had the opposition successfully chased more than 240 to win a match. That’s an extraordinary record for a side that hasn’t always possessed the most potent bowling attack. South Africa’s gritty, stunning assault on a daunting target and on a tricky surface is a testament to their desire and application, best exemplified by inspirational skipper Dean Elgar, who has perfected the incredibly difficult art of eking out tough runs despite blows galore to head, body, and limbs.
Ironically, the genesis of South Africa’s second-innings approach at The Wanderers lay in the manner of India’s approach to their second innings, on the third morning. Fighting for their places and to haul the team to a total with which the pace battery could attack the Proteas, the two most experienced batsmen in the XI produced a stirring counter-attack that yielded 111 runs in just 24 overs.
With their controlled aggression, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane seamlessly transferred the pressure over to South Africa, who held a narrow but crucial 27-run lead in the first innings. It took a searing burst from Kagiso Rabada to prevent India from running away with the game, but South Africa had picked up enough cues from that alliance to arrive at the conclusion that grinding out 240 in the final innings was fraught with a lot more danger than looking for every scoring opportunity without transgressing the line between carefree and careless.
For the first time in nearly four years, India’s redoubtable pace battery was visibly below par. Notwithstanding the hamstring scare to Mohammed Siraj on the second day, India still possessed the resources to stop South Africa in their tracks. After all, Jasprit Bumrah is at the peak of his powers, not without reason is Mohammed Shami called ‘second-innings Shami’ and Shardul Thakur was on a high following his first-innings burst of seven for 61, the best figures by an Indian against South Africa. Throw in R. Ashwin, arguably the best Test spinner going, and India had reason to be optimistic about sealing the deal in Johannesburg and securing their first series win on South African soil.
If things didn’t go according to plan, it was due to a combination of factors with perhaps Bumrah’s inability to hit his straps. Otherwise blessed with the uncanny ability to slip into the zone effortlessly, the pace spearhead seemed too eager to make his mark, veering away from the basic tenets of relentless accuracy and control and offering too many freebies in his search for wickets.
His first spell of seven overs, during which he went at five an over, cemented South Africa’s conviction that in being positive lay their best chance of levelling the series. History was stacked against them; apart from the opponents’ exceptional fourth-innings record defending totals, South Africa hadn’t beaten India in five attempts at The Wanderers, bizarrely India’s fortress even though it wasn’t in their backyard. To buck the trend, the home side needed one batsman to anchor the chase and the others to bat around him. In the phlegmatic Elgar, they found their glue. Aiden Markram, Keegan Petersen, Rassie van der Dussen, and Temba Bavuma all played significant secondary acts, first thwarting and then frustrating Indian designs with such aplomb and felicity that South Africa needed just 67.4 overs and lost only three wickets in racing to victory.
In the aftermath of such defeats, the ‘c’ word is often bandied about, though how anyone can even conceive that India would be complacent heading into a Test match that their regular skipper was sitting out through injury is hard to comprehend. There is a reason South Africa are such a tough side to conquer in their conditions, and India’s victory in the first Test in Centurion reiterated that. Despite the seeming fragility to their batting line-up, Elgar’s exhortations to fall back on pride and grit bore rich dividends as less heralded batsmen in the early stages of their careers dug deep to cash in on the opportunity to make a name for themselves.
Emboldened by having made handsome runs under pressure in bowler-friendly conditions, South Africa will be doubly dangerous when the teams line up for the decider in Cape Town on January 11. Historically, Newlands hasn’t always boasted the same pace and carry as surfaces in high-altitude Centurion and Johannesburg, though it will come as no surprise if another grassy knoll greets the visitors next week. India will have to find ways to shake off the Johannesburg setback and put meaningful first-innings runs on the board if they aren’t to return home empty-handed from South Africa for an eighth successive time.
It’s indisputable that India played themselves into a corner on day one itself when, batting first by choice, they were rolled over for 202. Another 75 runs would have been decisive, but the middle-order let them down badly. In Centurion, a first-innings tally of 327 and KL Rahul’s 123 proved the difference between the sides. It’s this message Rahul Dravid will be trying to drive home to his wards, not least to the enigmatic Rishabh Pant, a bundle of talent but still a little addled in his decision-making.
Kohli’s return will provide muscle and quality to the batting. Himself in the middle of an extended trough in Test cricket, the skipper can seek inspiration from the deeds of Pujara and Rahane, who have earned themselves a brief respite. That, and the knowledge that Bumrah is unlikely to have two middling Tests in a row, should help India retain the belief that Johannesburg was no more than an aberration, and that the Final Frontier can indeed be conquered here and now.