DECEMBER 30, 2021
Brief Scorecard: India 327 (Rahul 123, Agarwal 60, Ngidi 6-71) and 174 (Pant 34, Rabada 4-42, Jansen 4-55) beat South Africa 197 (Bavuma 52, Shami 5-44) and 191 (Elgar 77, Bumrah 3-50, Shami 3-63) by 113 runs
India’s captain Virat Kohli, second from right, celebrates with teammates at end of the fifth day of the Test Cricket match between South Africa and India at Centurion Park in Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021. India beat South Africa by 113 runs. (AP)
CENTURION, SOUTH AFRICA – An easy tell on how habituated India have gotten to winning outside the subcontinent was the restrained celebration once Ravichandran Ashwin got Lungisani Ngidi to edge to Cheteshwar Pujara at leg slip. There were high fives, some handshakes, Rahul Dravid taking off his cap while exchanging pleasantries with South African coach Mark Boucher but nothing too glaring — no gesticulation, no cuss words flung around with panache, not even any wild fist-pumping. From the outside, these are ominous signs of a team acutely aware of its capabilities and ready to go the distance. One Test win doesn’t quite whet their appetite these days; India are going for the ultimate glory — a first ever series win in South Africa, the only top Test-playing nation still left unconquered.
So it really doesn’t surprise anymore that India have breached another fortress in another country, that the fast bowlers took 18 of the 20 wickets, and that the openers set it up with a 117-run stand in the first innings after their captain — and this is where the narrative becomes so gripping — chose to bat at a venue that has consistently haunted visiting batters. India have beaten South Africa by 113 runs at Centurion to take a 1-0 lead in the three-match series. It is in the shadow of this massive reality check that hosts have to prepare for the second Test after losing their third ever Test, out of 27, at Centurion. Equally disconcerting must be the fact that this is their fifth consecutive defeat to India, and the second at home (counting the 2018 win at Wanderers) where they couldn’t cross 200 even once.
This is what an India-South Africa series has boiled down to — a jarring difference in batting. South Africa captain Dean Elgar was blunt when asked about the loss.
“Our batters let us down. I’d say the batting was the difference between the two sides,” he said.
Starting the day needing 211 runs with six wickets in hand, South Africa weren’t exactly gunning for glory. And since rain was predicted, they only needed to bat out time before the weather gods could have intervened. But India’s fast bowlers — Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj — were unrelenting. Statistically, South Africa lasted 27.1 overs on Thursday. But they effectively lost the game once Quinton de Kock was shown the way back 20 overs into the first session.
Even when runs were coming quickly off Bavuma and de Kock’s bats, there was a gnawing feeling that one way or the other, India would find their way to victory. Yet, if there is one positive South Africa can take from this defeat, it has to be the calm of Bavuma, who stayed unbeaten. Balanced stance, measured stride, unambiguous calling — Bavuma was everything most of his mates couldn’t be in the face of India’s onslaught. Go deeper and you might even find a hint of predictability in some of the dismissals. Like de Kock playing away from his body and chopping the ball on to his stumps in both innings. Siraj and Bumrah probed that corridor with nagging accuracy. Wiaan Mulder at the crease? Let’s see if Mohammad Shami can again tempt him with a fuller ball. He did. Mulder edged it. Rishabh Pant caught it. Aiden Markram? Bowled both times, off Shami.
Elgar and Bavuma worked in silos. But let’s talk about Bumrah and Elgar. Because it is through the prism of this duel that you can decipher the extent to which they went to deny each other till Bumrah finally breached Elgar’s defence. Over the wicket, slanting across the bat, and almost squaring up Elgar, Bumrah was exploiting the angles typical of a right-arm fast bowler/left-handed batter contest in the first innings. Around the wicket too, Elgar is still more vulnerable around the sixth stump. There were edges and false shots, some last-second withdrawals as Elgar kept battling that angle, looking for easier balls to score off. But this time, Bumrah decided to come around the wicket and test Elgar’s front foot. With a back of a length ball that also happened to hit a crack in the pitch, Bumrah made the ball come in sharply and hit Elgar beneath his knee roll. The precision of that delivery — along with his two-wicket spell late on Wednesday — didn’t escape Bumrah’s teammates standing in the slips as well. “I would love to be there till Bumrah is playing cricket,” said KL Rahul later.
Despite a brief counter-attack from de Kock and a long vigil from Bavuma, South Africa’s slide was inevitable. Between Shami, Siraj and Ashwin, India didn’t have any trouble imposing their supremacy on a clearly outwitted opposition. More grief could come South Africa’s way given de Kock will go on paternity leave after this Test. But India will be happy to go back to a venue where they are yet to lose, from where Kohli announced a cricketing coup in 2018 that toppled Australia in Australia and England in England. If cricket tours exist in cycles, then maybe India are destined to complete what they started at the Wanderers four years ago.
Great teams are not built overnight. Which makes it so fascinating following a team’s fortunes over a phase, understanding and appreciating the highs and the lows, the methods and the process that propel a subcontinent team to sustained heights of consistency, riding possibly the most skilled fast bowling line-up of our times. This win will grow on us in the years to come.
As will the years 2018 and 2021, the two times that India has won four Tests outside Asia in a calendar year — Johannesburg, Nottingham, Adelaide and Melbourne in 2018; Brisbane, Lord’s, Oval and Centurion in 2021. If the 2018 sequence was cause for euphoric surprise, this year, it’s the quiet pride of supremacy.