South Africa are in the box seat heading into day three on what is a slow pitch at Centurion, where batting last will be tough.
Given that 15 wickets have fallen on the opening two days of this Test, and with the weather set fair for the remainder of the match, a draw looks the least likely result in this game.
And with India having to bat last on a pitch that is slow and making run-scoring difficult, South Africa are in control.
Much hinges on the brilliant Virat Kohli to see how close they can get to South Africa, or indeed get into a first innings lead. You’d imagine that should India not get past the hosts’ 335, they’ll be right up against it, having to chase anything more than 300 on a wearing pitch.
Kohli is still there on 85, some 15 runs short of becoming the first batsman on either side to make a hundred in this series and the second Indian captain to make a century in South Africa after Sachin Tendulkar hit 169 at Newlands in 1997.
You’d bet that Kohli will get to three figures, but scoring runs – even for him – is becoming more difficult. That much can be seen by the fact that it took him two hours and 20 minutes, and 30 overs in total, to hit a boundary, having gone from 45 to 81 without finding the fence. And when it did come, late in the day, it was through a vacant second slip off an outside edge.
They reckoned that day two would be the best conditions for batting and if that is the case then it’s going to be tough out there from Monday onwards. Of the 15 wickets that have fallen, five have been to spin and there have been three run-outs. So, between the seven seamers across both sides, only seven wickets have been snared. Out and out pace has not been rewarded.
Little wonder Faf du Plessis opened the bowling with Keshav Maharaj, albeit only for one over before lunch was taken. But Maharaj went into the books as the first South African spinner to open a Test innings since Aubrey Faulkner against Australia in 1912. Maharaj has already sent down more overs (16) than any other South African bowler in this innings so far, and Ravi Ashwin did the same for India, taking 4-113 in 38.5 overs.
In their innings, South Africa batted at a run rate of 2.94 and in their reply, India operated at 3.0 to the over. At that rate they should be around 240 by the time the second new ball becomes available and that’s still some 95 runs behind the Proteas. If they have lost more wickets, that will also swing the odds further in favour of the Proteas. It’s very much advantage South Africa and batting first was crucial on what has been a disappointing pitch for those expecting pace and bounce.
Former India opening legend Sunil Gavaskar has said a number of times how the pitch is one that could have been prepared in India, for India. The groundstaff have done South Africa no favours and Du Plessis and Ottis Gibson surely didn’t ask for a moribund surface while picking their ‘Four Horsemen’ of Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada and Lunga Ngidi. And if they didn’t ask for the slow surface, why was it produced? To get the match into day four and five, for TV revenue, especially in India?
It is perhaps telling too that there were only two DRS reviews asked for in the entire second day’s play and they came 60 overs apart. The first was against Du Plessis and the second against Kohli – both were unsuccessful – which also shows that there hasn’t been a plethora of appeals and chances, although wickets have tumbled at regular intervals.
The trend should continue, with bowlers’ lines and lengths frustrating the batsmen who are also never going to feel truly ‘in’ on a pitch that will surely start doing some tricks later on Monday. It might sound obvious enough but the first session of the third day could determine the fate of this Test match. Conventional wisdom would suggest that South Africa will take a first-innings lead and bat well enough in their second innings to take a winning chance away from India, but with Kohli at the crease and looking a class act, everything will hinge on him.