South Africa stood toe to toe with India and should win by knockout at Newlands.
Remember Marvin Hagler against Tommy Hearns in 1985? Perhaps you do, perhaps you don’t. It was a boxing classic, three rounds of non-stop action, two middleweights at the peak of their powers, swinging punches, landing plenty, taking plenty. It was a showdown for the ages. Hagler won by third-round knockout.
The first day of the opening Test between South Africa and India at Newlands took me back in my mind’s eye to that fight. The action was frenetic, brilliant entertainment.
Cricket SA’s official press release after a day which saw 13 wickets fall, South Africa being bowled out for 286 and then having India 28-3, included the words, Faf du Plessis ‘winning the toss and deciding to bat first under hazardous conditions’. Seriously? ‘Hazardous conditions’? This was no green top and the bowling attack wasn’t Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Courtney Walsh, Andy Roberts and friends.
But, in the 2018 concept of Test cricket, any pitch that gives bowlers a chance is considered a minefield.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar bowled two ordinary balls down the leg-side to Dean Elgar who flicked at and missed both and the third ball of the day, outside off stump, took Elgar’s edge. Three balls in and South Africa were 0-1. It surely wasn’t the best ball Kumar has ever bowled. But it set the tone for an extraordinary day of Test cricket.
Aiden Markram, who will be at this level for a decade, hit a sumptuous off drive for four and then Kumar perhaps found a flaw in the youngster’s technique by trapping him in front. After easier assignments and an impressive start to his Test career against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, Markram will have quickly found that India is a division above those second-tier Test nations.
Hashim Amla was next out, also to Kumar who was bowling from the Wynberg End with a south-easter coming over his right shoulder to help him, but his edged shot off the back foot showed the intention. The Wynberg End was certainly the easier from which to deliver the new red ball.
At 12-3, India were on top. And rightly so, just like Hearns was against Hagler in the early stages of their slugfest.
Enter AB de Villiers and what brilliant counter-punching he showed. In the ninth over, with the score 15-3, he took 17 runs off a Kumar and together with Faf du Plessis the two took the fight to India. Toe to toe stuff, yes. Just like Hagler and Hearns three decades ago. This is, and was, No 1 versus No 2 in the world. Take a bow AB. He and Du Plessis weathered the storm and took the sting from India’s punches brilliantly.
But, those who have bought tickets for the fifth day of this Test at Newlands had better make other arrangements.
TV commentators and analysts scrambled to try agree on what a ‘par score’ was on a pitch which has over the years produced an average of 374 in the first innings. Another stat shows that over the past 20 years the average runs per wicket at this ground is 32.9. So, on those figures given that cricket is a stats game, that would have put South Africa’s ‘par’ score at between 329 and 374, especially when winning the toss and batting first under a cloudless sky.
So, why were the experts talking about 250 being a good total during the lunchtime break? Well, being 12-3 and then 107-3 at lunch and with the selectors picking four fast bowlers and a spinner, one understands their thinking.
Bringing back the Hagler-Hearns boxing analogy. A personal view is that new coach Ottis Gibson is a breath of fresh air into the South African game. It’s perhaps something our rugby Springboks could learn something from. Don’t fear having a foreigner coach the national side. He’s brought aggressive energy and belief.
Gibson stands toe to toe with the opposition and there is no need for the ICC to re-invent the wheel and change Test cricket from five days to four. Good teams will do the job inside five days in any case, given the way batsmen have become more aggressive due to T20, while also forgetting what it’s like to dig in and defend.
South Africa at 12-3 were in serious trouble. However, they hit their way out of it with 19 fours in a first session of 107-3 (that’s 76 runs in boundaries) and then another 19 fours in the second session which took them to 230-7. That’s another 76 in boundaries from the 123 runs scored between lunch and tea.
The last three wickets for South Africa to fall saw only one four and two sixes from 120 balls. For me, it highlighted the importance for the specialist batsmen to be aggressive on a superb Test batting pitch produced by Newlands groundsman Evan Flint. A pitch which is giving the bowlers a chance and perhaps one where the batsmen don’t really feel ‘in’.
An early prediction, even given we’ve seen one day of this series: If the Tests aren’t weather affected, South Africa will whitewash India. There’s too much firepower in a bowling department that has Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada working in tandem. And Maharaj to bring into the mix as well, as the spinner.
The opening day was frenetic and toe-to-toe and befitting a match-up of No 1 and 2 in the Test rankings. But, for this observer, South Africa are Hagler and India are Hearns. South Africa will win by knockout.
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