After South Africa’s shaky start, AB de Villiers steadied them with a brisk fifty
Drama, thy name is Test cricket. At Newlands. On a pitch with a bit of spice. With a build-up that did not lack for shots across the bow.
Faf du Plessis confessed he had a score to settle, and so he armed himself with four fast bowlers who are the envy of the world. Virat Kohli saw Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander during warm-ups. His only comment with regard to was “we knew they were going a batsman short and we want to get at them with the new ball”. He should feel quite happy considering South Africa went to tea at 230 for 7 with only the bowlers left.
Bhuvneshwar Kumar spirited three wickets in his first three overs. To ensure there wasn’t one-way traffic, AB de Villiers produced a half-century that was downright delectable. He had total control of the game and the opposition at his mercy when the debutant Jasprit Bumrah – who played his last first-class game almost exactly a year ago – knocked back the off stump.
India’s hold-one-end-up bowler Hardik Pandya got rid of du Plessis for 62 mere moments after a remarkably tight lbw call went against the visitors. Kohli probably had that running in his head – and the South African captain’s pre-series comments about revenge – when he indulged in a send-off and was soon cautioned by the umpires.
Worried that things had calmed too far down, Quinton de Kock spent an hour in the middle looking like he was the action hero who always gets shot at but never gets hit. Anyone who stepped away from their screens during the 53 overs of play in Cape Town, please report to the cricket gods for punishment.
Now, it is more than fair for a home team to play to its strengths but that didn’t mean batting was a treacherous exercise. The outfield was lightning. The ball came onto the bat even better than expected. Fields were up. And fun was had. The run-rate through the first two sessions was 4.3
Dean Elgar might not be too happy with how his day went though. Having finished 2017 as South Africa’s highest Test scorer, his first innings in the new year lasted only three balls. It wasn’t entirely his fault though. India had probably done their homework and realised that of his 44 dismissals to pace, 30 of them have been caught behind or in the cordon. So Bhuvneshwar forced him to deal with a back of a length ball pitching on off stump and seaming away. He had to play. Then he had to go.
Aiden Markram was lbw not playing a shot. Okay, that’s not quite true. He was trying desperately to bring his bat in line with a good length delivery pitching outside off and jagging back in but he just wasn’t quick enough. The young opener basically strung himself up with his habit of shuffling across and playing around his front pad.
The third wicket of this phenomenal spell was probably the most important of them all. But it was the least sexy. Hashim Amla poked well away from his body and Wriddhiman Saha picked up his second catch of the first half hour, much to the cacophonous delight of the slip fielders beside him. Oddly, Ajinkya Rahane was not among that number with India choosing to go in with Rohit Sharma, a man in better recent form.
With the new ball and the outside and inside edges hogging the limelight, the middle of the bat was off sulking somewhere. De Villiers found it and made sure it was front and centre for the entire time he was at the crease. He sent his first through midwicket for a crisp boundary. He struck India’s best bowler Bhuvneshwar for four fours in an over. He played late. He met the ball close to his body. He used soft hands. And he punished anything even remotely short. In essence, de Villiers’ innings was an exhibition of how to bat on a difficult pitch. Playing only his third day of Test cricket over the last two years, he made 65 off 84 balls.
India might have done even better if Mohammed Shami had found his rhythm sooner but he did not enjoy bowling into the wind; his run-up noticeably affected. It took 10 overs and three spells for his first wicket of the tour. It was one his team was hunting for though. Philander, in his pre-match comments, had indicated that he did not believe India were better travellers now. And while he did play some of the best cover drives in the match, helping string a vital 60-run stand for the sixth wicket at more than run-a-ball, he left the field with his defences and his stumps shattered.
Bhuvneshwar had the opportunity to take a fifth wicket just before tea was taken, but India’s old problem of having a porous slip cordon put paid to those plans when Shikhar Dhawan dropped Keshav Maharaj on 0.