IND vs SA: Shardul Thakur in seventh heaven, Cheteshwar Pujara on fifth gear
After two days of hard-fought cricket, the second Test in Johannesburg is still very much in the balance. India are ahead by 58 runs, but look at it from another angle and they are also probably one small collapse away from frittering away the advantage gained in a manic session where runs came at 4.25 per over.
Orchestrating this fight back are Cheteshwar Pujara, batting on 35 laced with seven fours and a strike rate of—hold your breath—83.33 and Ajinkya Rahane, shoring up the other end with a scratchy but resilient 11. India need more from them, not only for the sake of their careers but also to test South Africa on an increasingly unpredictable Wanderers pitch. Early wickets could mean farewell to the senior batsmen, but evidently they are not going down without a fight.
That India decided against sending a nightwatchman after the dismissals of KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal is an indication that Pujara and Rahane aren’t asking for any favours. But what is already setting this innings apart is Pujara’s riveting no-holds-barred attack. Short delivery testing his midriff? Pujara swivelled to keep the pull down for a four through fine-leg. A more pronounced bouncer next time was countered with a fierce hook that got a top-edge but Pujara got the boundary he wanted. Full and straight and Pujara was majestically driving the ball past mid-on. Cue Keshav Maharaj’s left-arm spin and Pujara made him pay with two contrasting boundaries even though it was the last over of the day. This is far removed from the Pujara we have seen in the last decade.
If India are sincerely hoping this new avatar of Pujara doesn’t change minds overnight, South Africa will also be praying their fast bowlers limit India to a manageable lead, something in the horizon of 150 or 200. That will at least be job half-done because so well-sharpened is India’s bowling right now though that no target is easily achievable.
South Africa got a taste of that on Tuesday, sliding from 88/1 to 229 all out, thanks to Shardul Thakur’s maiden five-wicket haul. Thakur returned 7/61, joint-best bowling figures (with England’s Matthew Hoggard on the 2004-05 tour) at the Wanderers since South Africa’s re-admission in 1992. Thakur’s mix of seam and the right amount of medium pace was probably just what was needed on the spicy pitch to confound batters. It was as if South Africa didn’t see it coming from the man nicknamed Beefy (Ian Botham’s nickname) by his teammates.
In full tilt, a fast bowling attack fronted by Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj can often eclipse other bowlers. But there are days when they are not as effective, the ball will not draw an edge or not carry to the slip if it does. Coming off a hamstring pull, Siraj had shortened his run-up but Bumrah and Shami were testing South Africa batters the entire morning, either cutting through their defence from wide of the crease or trying to square them up with the delivery that shaped away. But the breakthrough wasn’t coming.
Dean Elgar was so obsessive about protecting his stumps that he took 32 balls to score his first run in the morning. But with Keegan Petersen finding the gaps, South Africa weren’t halted in their tracks. With lunch not far away, Rahul brought on Thakur, who had bowled just five overs (even fewer than Ravichandran Ashwin) in the second innings at Centurion.
He quickly found his length. The ball that got Elgar was similar to his dismissal in the first innings at Centurion—a back of a length delivery angled away and took a faint edge. The partnership was finally broken and South Africa were 88/2. Next to go was Petersen, who had just compiled a brilliant half-century with a boundary off Shami that possibly led him to believe that he could attack more.
Thakur teased him with a wide, fuller delivery nowhere as quick as Shami. Petersen chased at it, resulting in an edge that Agarwal caught at second slip. One wicket soon led to two and South Africa were 101/3.
South Africa may have some grouse over losing the next wicket at 102 on the stroke of lunch when Rassie van der Dussen was caught behind off Thakur after inside-edging the ball on to his thigh pad. Pant successfully claimed his catch and inconclusive TV angles didn’t change it. Later in the day, India faced a similar situation when Aiden Markram claimed a low catch of Rahul in the slip cordon off Marco Jansen.
Elgar and South Africa team manager Khomotso Masubelele reportedly met the match officials during lunch to discuss van der Dussen’s dismissal, but the decision couldn’t have been reversed. Most of the time that Temba Bavuma and Kyle Verreynne used to revive South Africa with a 60-run partnership coincided with Rahul bringing back Shami and Bumrah, and Ashwin as change. But Thakur was back at it again, trapping Verreynne with a length ball that came in sharply.
Next over, seeing Bavuma walk across his stumps, Thakur shortened his length and forced him to recalibrate his pull into a glance that Pant caught brilliantly lunging to his left. That wicket should have put an end to South Africa’s resistance, but Jansen and Maharaj added 38 runs for the eighth wicket to take the hosts past India’s first-innings total.
It was a baffling passage of play where India’s fast bowling seemed a little off the boil. Jansen and Maharaj used the long handle well to hit boundaries as Bumrah fluffed his lines before knocking back Maharaj’s off-stump. Jansen tried to keep up the tempo by hitting Bumrah for two fours in the next over but Thakur again came to the fore, removing him and Lungisani Ngidi in the space of four balls, just before the second new ball was due.