South Africa are again in the driving seat after a day when 11 wickets fell at the Wanderers.
You have to wonder what was going through Virat Kohli’s mind when he won the toss and decided to bat on a Wanderers track tinged with grass, under cloudy skies and on an outfield made heavy by overnight rain.
As the coin came down in his favour for the first time in this series, Kohli inexplicably made the call to bat first. It wasn’t quite a greentop like we saw in November 1999 when England were sent in at the Wanderers against a new-ball attack of Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock and found themselves 2-4 and all out for 122. But there might be parallels to what we saw then and this final Test against India.
Then, South Africa replied with 403 when days two and three flattened out and went on to win by an innings and 21 runs. This could well be what happens in Johannesburg over the coming days, with India having being bowled out for 187 and the hosts losing Aiden Markram early in their reply.
India have only started a Test match once in their illustrious history without fielding a specialist spinner. That was in Perth in 2012, where Australia went on to win by an innings. So, with an all-seam attack, Kohli also chose to bat?
At times the new Kookaburra ball moved too much for the batsmen to get near it, but still, India found themselves only into the ninth over when Kohli was asked to come to the crease. It has been the story of the series so far. At Newlands, Kohli came in at 18-2 and 30-2, at Centurion it was 28-2 and 16-2 and here at the Wanderers it was 13-2. This was in the ninth over and at no stage in five innings so far this series has Kohli come in later than the 12th over.
It is yet another example of the bizarre decision he made to bat first, especially against a vaunted South African attack of Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and the all-rounder Andile Phehlukwayo.
And, even though India limped to lunch at 45-2, with Cheteshwar Pujara taking 54 balls to get off the mark, South Africa could have made far deeper inroads into the batting lineup. At 27-2 Du Plessis didn’t go to the DRS review for an lbw in favour of Ngidi – this too was strange, given that he would have retained his review had it read ‘umpire’s call’ – when the replay showed it was hitting the stumps, while Kohli himself was dropped on 11 when Vernon Philander put down a simple chance.
Only three India batsmen reached double figures and both Kohli and Pujara made fifties; in Kohli’s case he struck nine fours on a slow outfield and was ultimately dropped twice before AB de Villiers hung on to a stinger off Ngidi. Pujara, meanwhile, dropped anchor at the other end and fought admirably for his 50 after a watch of 261 minutes. He won’t need to be anxious waiting for his phone to light up on Sunday when the IPL auction takes place.
When one looks at the scoreboard, you’d immediately reckon that South Africa were sensational in the field; being asked to bowl first and having the world’s No 1 team all out for 187 in 77 overs. In truth, they will bowl much better for less reward.
A number of India’s batsmen gave away their wickets cheaply, especially among the lower order where they lost their last six wickets for only 43 runs, as Rabada finished with 3-39 and Phehlukwayo 2-25. Ironically, he was the most ‘expensive’, going at a run rate of 3.57 runs per over in the context of an innings that progressed at 2.42.
South Africa also conceded 26 extras in that total of 187, which included 11 byes, six wides and two no balls, one of which was bowled by Philander who was celebrating a wicket when the umpires checked that he’d overstepped the mark.
So it was anything but a flawless bowling performance by South Africa. But against an India side lacking confidence with the bat, a captain who increasingly looks to be making decisions without taking advice or thinking them through – this includes team selection – it was enough.
Of the 11 wickets to fall on the first day, 10 of them fell to catches, which also tells the story of the bowlers attacking the line outside off stump rather than directing the ball at the stumps. It was another crazy day of Test cricket and one which already suggests that those who have tickets for Sunday’s fifth day, may as well be making alternate arrangements.
South Africa will have the best of the batting conditions on day two, and three. They’ll look to cash in, taking advantage of Kohli’s error in judgement.
Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images