After the pyrotechnics of a Newlands Test that was over inside three days of actual playing time, this first day at Centurion was tame by comparison. Which is understandable. But. There’s always a but.
This didn’t feel like the first day of a Test match between the world’s No 1 and No 2 Test nations, where they’d picked up from where they’d left off. At Newlands it was a knock ’em down, drag ’em out slugfest.
One expected more from the Centurion Park groundsman; instead I found the pitch disappointing. Slow, a bit spongy – how many times did the ever impressive Aiden Markram attempt a cut and actually hit the ball in front of square because the ball hadn’t got to him – and then having a spinner bowl 31 of the 90 overs on the day. At Centurion? Yes, we’re told that days two and three will be better, more bounce and carry. Let’s see …
Newlands was always going to be a hard act to follow, so it’s fair to cut some slack.
South Africa again went for the ‘Four Horsemen’, with Lungi Ngidi earning his first Test cap in the absence of Dale Steyn, and only Keshav Maharaj as the spinner. After the first day, the hosts are 269-6. The first column, the 269, is tidy. The second is disappointing.
When Faf du Plessis won the toss for the second time in a row, he obviously chose to bat first. The old Test adage applies, even on a pitch tinged with green, think about batting first, think again and then bat first. Yet this Centurion pitch has little green and batting first was a no-brainer.
Even if the scorecard says the hosts reached 78-0 at lunch in 27 overs, it doesn’t tell the story. Dean Elgar seems, for now, a different opener to the one who was unmoveable in 2017. He averages 41 in Test cricket but the 31 he scored was an out of touch innings; his first boundary, when on 15, should have found himself caught but for abject India fielding awareness.
For South Africa to find themselves six wickets down at the end of a day on a docile Centurion pitch is actually a poor return for the hosts. There was very little in it for the bowlers.
Ravichandran Ashwin sent down 31 overs and took three wickets for 90 runs. Of the 90 overs bowled, 21 were maidens and the run rate ended 2.98 to the over. It’s not as if India bowled particularly well, but they stuck to their task on a slow pitch.
One has to reckon that South Africa bailed India out of jail on day one. Six wickets fell: one to a seamer, three to a spinner and two to run outs, of all ways to get out.
There were stages during the final session of the day that seemed like amateur hour. In 33 overs bowled after tea, South Africa went from 182-2 to 269-6, which is a poor return on a pitch where 400 is a par score batting first.
The good news for the home faithful is that South Africa have the runs on the board and one shouldn’t judge a pitch until both sides have batted on it. But, two runs outs and three wickets to a spinner?
It was an average day’s cricket from both sides, broadly speaking and with a few honourable exceptions. South Africa should have already been over the hill and far away. Which they should be able to do over the remaining four days. So, yes, I’m going for South Africa to push on and perhaps we’ll find that Keshav Maharaj is the man who might grab a headline or two later in this Test.
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