The fat lady has cleared her throat and now we’re just waiting to hear her sing in the second Test at Centurion.
To highlight how difficult scoring runs is on this pitch – as it got deeper into the Test – Virat Kohli was third man out with the score on 26 and the next seven overs produced only nine runs as India closed on 35-3, still 252 runs away from an unlikely victory.
Not since the days that Hansie Cronje sold cricket and his soul to some underworld bookmakers for a few dollars and a leather jacket in 2000 has any team chased down more than 249 runs to win a Test match batting last at Centurion.
So when South Africa were all out for 258 and left India 287 to square the series with effectively four sessions remaining, everything pointed to the hosts wrapping things up and taking an unassailable 2-0 lead heading into the final Test at the Wanderers.
On a pitch that has been more sub-continent than highveld, winning the toss and batting first was of utmost importance and for the second time in the series it fell the way of Faf du Plessis, allowing South Africa to once again apply some slow poison to stand on the brink of wrapping things up on day five.
If you remove the brilliance of Kohli in India’s first knock – where he made almost half of his team’s total with 153 – this game should have been over and the fifth day could have been spent playing golf. There may still be a few afternoon tee-off times available on Wednesday, though.
AB de Villiers and Kohli have two of the most lucrative bat sponsorship deals in world cricket through Indian tyre manufacturer MRF and both batsmen have given their sponsor plenty of TV time this series. De Villiers has scored 200 runs in four innings, Kohli 191 with Du Plessis next best on 173.
It says much about Kohli’s superb first innings, where he helped get the tourists within 28 runs of South Africa’s total of 335 that he remains the only batsman to hit a hundred in this series.
Then again, while Kohli has been the mainstay of India’s batting, De Villiers has lived up to his own billing and his 80 in 121 balls in the second innings, sharing in a partnership of 141 with Dean Elgar after coming to the crease at a wobbly 3-2, is what took this match – and the series – away from India.
Du Plessis dropped anchor on a slow pitch and he will have known that it was his role to help get his team over the 250-run chase target for India. The captain performed well, eventually falling for 48 but absorbing 141 balls in the process, as he helped put the Indian target over the hill and far away.
It was a pitch where batsmen had to toil, while the bowlers had to stay patient. There wasn’t much ‘madcap’ cricket, as one had seen in the first Test at Newlands – although there were four successive balls that won’t make for repeat viewing for Quinton de Kock.
The wicketkeeper-batsman joined Du Plessis at 151-4 and with South Africa leading by 179. He lasted five balls, the last four from Mohammed Shami going: edged through slips for four, edged past keeper for four, edged through slips for four, caught behind. There’s no guessing as to what batting coach Dale Benkenstein will be doing with him in the nets in the coming week.
But, while the likes of De Villiers, Kohli and Du Plessis will be taking the plaudits as the batsmen, it’s the bowlers who have to take the 20 wickets to win a Test.
Lungi Ngidi has already taken three in this game and two of the three to fall in the Indian second innings. Those who are keen students of Test cricket will have taken note of the big fast bowler and, given what we’ve seen before, we’re likely to see him for the next decade or so. With Kagiso Rabada already the world’s No 1-ranked bowler in the world and with Ngidi coming through, the future for South African fast bowling is bright.
Let’s look at a dreamy parallel.
Dale Steyn was only 21 and had played seven first-class matches when he made his Test debut for South Africa, against England in 2004. He took three wickets on debut, including that of the England captain, Michael Vaughan, with a jaffer that remains part of the highlights reel of 419 Test wickets.
De Villiers made his Test debut in the same game, also aged 21, with just 16 first-class matches under his belt. Almost 20,000 runs for his country later and he is a giant in the modern game.
Ngidi, like Steyn and De Villiers was picked to make his South African Test debut after a few first-class matches, in his case nine. And he too is only 21, being given the chance to pull on Test whites, ironically, because of an injury to Steyn.
And, like Steyn, he announced himself with a bang, trapping Kohli on the crease late on day four to all but close the door on any remote chance the tourists had of squaring the three-match series. It was a good ball but the pitch helped keep it low, but the celebrations – and subsequent send-off – of India’s talismanic captain said it all. The opposition captain, and one as highly-regarded as Kohli, is always a good name to have on your CV.
Ngidi has arrived and the more he learns the art of fast bowling the more South Africa’s fast bowlers are going to be a handful. Even on moribund home pitches, like the one inexplicably prepared at Centurion.
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