For most of the first Test between South Africa and India, the Centurion was the kind of setting pace bowlers dream about. An overcast sky coupled with a spicy surface which thanks to a healthy grass cover afforded good bounce and movement. On such helpful tracks, the seamers’ job is easier. Even if you don’t have the skills to outthink and set-up the batters, you can still make hay. Put the ball in the right areas and let the conditions do the rest.
That is exactly why India’s first innings total of 245 was being seen as a good effort. But to the dismay of Indian fans, the bowlers failed to cash in as the visitors crashed to an innings defeat.
When you concede a lead of 163 on a South African pitch, the chance of a comeback for a team from the subcontinent is not a good one. Led by Dean Elgar’s 185, South Africa posted 408 runs despite having just 10 batters after skipper Temba Bavuma was retired out courtesy a hamstring injury on the opening day.
When you concede runs at the rate of 3.79 (Mohammed Siraj), 5.32 (Shardul Thakur) and 4.65 (Prasidh Krishna), the team has little control over the proceedings. It also meant that Jasprit Bumrah’s fine effort went in vain. He was his usual self in the first innings — 26-4-5-69-4 — but, frustratingly, lacked support.
THIRD STRAIGHT LOSS
It is the third straight Test match in South Africa that the Indian pacers have been found wanting in bowling-friendly conditions. This time India is missing Mohammed Shami but a year ago, they had the full-strength attack with Bumrah, Shami, Siraj and an in-form Thakur when South Africa chased down a target of 240 to win the second Test by seven wickets at the Wanderers Stadium, Johannesburg. In the series decider, at Cape Town, South Africa repeated the act by chasing down a target of 212 to win by seven wickets.
India’s template of success in overseas conditions was built on bowling as a unit, maintaining relentless pressure with a disciplined line and drying up the runs.
It was the difference in India’s historic win in Australia, 2018, when among the pacers who did the bulk of the bowling, Bumrah’s series ER was 2.27, Ishant Sharma’s 2.54 and Mohammed Shami’s 3.06.
During India’s victory in the third Test at Wanderers in 2018, Bhuvneshwar Kumar had an ER of 2.32 & 2.17 in the two innings, Shami 3.83 & 2.24, Bumrah 2.87 & 2.71 and Ishant Sharma 2.36 & 1.94. The pacers pulled off a similar show in the first Test of the 2021-22 series at Centurion as India won — Bumrah’s ER was 2.18 & 2.63, Siraj 2.97 & 2.61, Shami 2.75 & 3.71. Thakur was the only one who was expensive at 4.64 & 2.
But the control was sorely lacking at Centurion.
“Bumrah bowled well,” said India captain Rohit. “All he wanted was a bit of support from the other end, which he didn’t get. That happens. All the other three bowlers were trying very hard, bending their backs, but it just didn’t work out… Hopefully, they understand what went wrong and try and come back stronger in the next game.”
The skipper has also come under the scanner for some of his bowling changes. In a scenario where the support bowlers are off-colour, the other template is to stick to your main bowlers and rotate them like captain Ajinkya Rahane did during the 2020 Melbourne Test win. In the second innings, Rahane got 27 overs out of Bumrah, 37.1 out of R Ashwin and 21.3 out of Siraj. The pressure never eased on the Australia batters and they got 200 in 103.1 overs.
Rohit could well have used Ashwin more, especially given his record against left-handers. The off-spinner bowled his 19 overs tidily for 41 runs (ER 2.16).
As India look to bounce back from the debacle, there’s a lot to learn from the way South Africa bowled in the second innings.
“While I initially felt the South African team would’ve been unhappy after the 1st innings, their pace attack surpassed expectations and showcased remarkable skill in the 2nd innings, in spite of the pitch becoming more favourable for batting as the match progressed,” Sachin Tendulkar stated on X (formerly Twitter).
The final frontier still stands but in the second Test which begins on January 3, India’s bowlers will have a chance to show that this performance was an aberration and not the rule.