India's final frontier dreams up in smoke in three days vs 10-man South Africa | Cricket - Hindustan Times

India's final frontier dreams up in smoke in three days against a 10-man South Africa

Dec 28, 2023 09:11 PM IST

South Africa hammered India by an innings and 32 runs in the series opener at the Supersport Park in Centurion inside three days.

India's dream of winning a Test series in South Africa - their 'final frontier' - for the first time went up in smoke. So thick and dark it was that it had the potential to even put the Delhi winter fog to shame. If one were poetic enough with a broken heart then the imaginary pungent smell accompanying the smoke would have disturbed him.

South Africa's Kagiso Rabada celebrates with teammates(REUTERS)
South Africa's Kagiso Rabada celebrates with teammates(REUTERS)

Let's come back to the reality, which belonged to South Africa.

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The hosts, presumably, the 'weaker' side before the start of the series, hammered India by an innings and 32 runs in the series opener at the Supersport Park in Centurion inside three days to take an unbeatable 1-0 lead in the two-match series. After being bowled out for 245 in the first innings, India allowed South Africa to post 408 and take a decisive 163-run lead on a pitch that offered something to the fast bowlers pretty much throughout the match. In their second innings, India were rolled over for 131 in just 34.1 overs on Day 3.

Presumption rarely works in international cricket. No South African side is weak in their backyard. It cannot be. So what if they had two debutants? So what most of their batters were out of form? So what their captain Temba Bavuma hobbled off the field on Day 1 and never returned? So what?

They had Kagiso Rabada, who bowled like a man possessed, picking up 7 wickets in the match. They had Dean Elgar, who in his last series, showed a batting masterclass for the ages. Debutant David Bedingham held his own with the bat with a solid half-century and so did Nandre Burger with the ball, especially in the second innings. Marco Jansen though blew hot and cold, made important contributions with bat and ball.

What about India? There was the individual brilliance of KL Rahul in the first innings and Virat Kohli in the second; Jasprit Bumrah was the standout with the ball with a four-wicket haul. But the rest painted a sorry picture.

Poor show by India pacers

Listless, lacklustre, clueless - rarely would one associate India's Test side with such words in recent times. But this match was different. It was a crude reminder to the No.1-ranked side that there is a whole lot of work to do.

When play resumed on time - for the first time in this Test - on Thursday, South Africa had their noses in front but they would have been the first to be wary of this Indian side who have somewhat mastered the art of staging comebacks in overseas Tests over the last five years.

That Indian side, however, didn't turn up in this match at all. There were glimpses of their class and quality when Rahul hit that breathtaking 101 in the first innings or when Bumrah troubled the Proteas batters in patches and even when Kohli batted freely in the second innings with wickets tumbling at the other end. But as captain Rohit said after the match, to win a Test match in South Africa, being good in certain patches will never be enough.

South Africa began the day at 256/5, enjoying a slender 11-run lead. It was an open secret that Bavuma was unlikely to bat. Effectively, they had four wickets to play with. If India's pacers got their lengths right, the story could have changed quickly. But they didn't.

Bumrah and Siraj started reasonably well but the moment they were taken off keeping the second new ball in mind, the skeletons of India's pace attack laid bare.

Debutant Prasidh Krishna and Shardul Thakur were so off-colour that in the post-match show, there were discussions of Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma, both no longer in the scheme of things for some time now.

Elgar and Jansen sensed this. They preferred to go after Thakur and Prasidh instead of Ashwin, who did his best but on this track, he was never going to be the deciding factor.

Elgar and Jansen put on 111 for the sixth wicket before the former was dismissed for 185, agonisingly short of his maiden double century.

India got another wicket of Gerald Coetzee but at the lunch break, South Africa had already taken a lead of 147.

Bumrah got two more wickets in the second session to bowl South Africa out for 408 as Jansen remained stranded on 84 - his highest Test score.

Kohli the lone fighter

Seeing the South African batters bat and the sun baking down from morning, India would have surely hoped for a better show with the bat. But just like the weather, India's fortunes changed.

Rabada came with a peach of delivery to rattle Rohit's stumps and Yashasvi Jaiswal could not get his cloves out of the way from a Burger short-pitched delivery. Before they could know it, India were two down for 13.

Shubman Gill and Virat Kohli started positively, taking advantage of some loose deliveries from Coetzee and Jansen. Just like India, South Africa's first-change bowlers were way off the mark in this Test.

But unlike South Africa's batters, India failed to gain full advantage of it. Gill (26), after looking set, missed a full straight ball from Jansen to have his stumps disturbed at the stroke of Tea.

At the other side of the break, it was Shreyas Iyer (6) who missed another harmless straight ball from Jansen.

At 72 for 4, the KL Rahul and Kohli partnership was India's last hope to stay alive in the contest.

But the herculean effort with the bat in the first innings and keeping for 108.4 overs left Rahul jaded. In a rare lapse of concentration, he flashed at a wide one from Burger only to nick to the slips for 4. Ashwin holed out to gully in the next ball and Shardul Thakur lasted only 8 balls as all of a sudden, India were staring at an innings defeat.

In between all this, Kohli entertained the crowd with some sumptuous flicks and straight drives. On another day his stand-up-tall flat-batted six over cover-point off Coetzee would be talked about in detail but not today.

With partners running out faster than water from a leaked tank, Kohli charged down the track, trying to hit Jansen over his head only to find Rabada at long on, who took a brilliant diving catch to end the former India skipper's innings at 76 and finish the match.

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    Aritra Mukherjee, who happens to be a journalist, is in an eternal relationship with food and sleep. He can, however, sacrifice both or at least the latter for his love-affair with cricket. 'He said,' 'he added,' 'he signed off' are some of his favourite phrases. When not juggling between food, sleep and cricket, he wastes time by surfing OTT platforms.

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