To begin the 22nd over of India’s chase, Vernon Philander bowled the ball full and a shade outside Virat Kohli’s off stump, which the batsman punched to the cover fielder. Instantly, a section of the crowd on the grass embankment of Newlands broke into a chant of the Indian captain’s name, ‘Kohli Kohli’ replacing ‘Ole Ole’ in the famous football tune. With the sun beating down on Cape Town after a despicable day of rain and winds that ensured that no cricket was played on Day Three, the half-naked spectators sprawled besides portable beer coolers on Day Four were in a chirpy mood.
Above the embankment and on the old-school blackboard (marked with rows and columns), the score read ‘India: Runs: 71, Wickets: 3’. In other words (and numbers), India were 137 runs away from a historic win – only their third in 27 years in South Africa, only their first in Cape Town. To achieve this, India had 7 wickets in hand. More significantly, they had Kohli. At this point, the 22nd over, the captain was well placed and sure footed on 28 runs.
Philander bowled the second ball of the over well outside Kohli’s off stump – at least a stump further away than his opening delivery. Kohli dead batted the ball limp. It was fetched by the South African wicketkeeper, Quinton de Kock. For his third delivery, Philander bowled the ball even further outside Kohli’s off – a fifth stump line, if you may. To this, the batsman didn’t even bother with a response, letting the ball safely pass to the ‘keeper.
Kohli, of course, was aware of Big Vern’s strategy: each ball moving a little further away was only going to result in the bowler trying to bring one ball back in. When Philander did, off the very next ball, Kohli even seemed ready for it -- bat handle pressed into his body, face of the bat closing to tuck it away square. Yet, once the ball rose off the pitch, jagging back in, Kohli’s bat disagreed with his mind and missed the ball, leather eventually crashing into his front pad moments before the umpire raised his index finger. Kohli understood the significance of this moment and decided to waste a review. “We knew he was stone-dead,” Philander would later say in the press conference. And stone-dead he was, just like India’s chances of winning this Test were as he slowly walked off the field.
Off the 18 wickets that fell on Day Four (yes, 18), Kohli’s had the greatest impact on the result of the game. A moment before he was dismissed, India’s chances hovered around the 50 per cent mark. And about 90 minutes before that, as the players took lunch, India had recovered miraculously enough during the first session for them – and almost everyone spread around the circumference of Newlands -- to genuinely believe that the odds were heavily stacked in their dressing room to win this Test; belief and odds that were forged by the collective performance of India’s fast bowlers.
And what a performance it was. When the wet covers were lifted early on Monday morning, a once dry and flat pitch had turned spicy due to all the under-cover sweating. Resuming their second innings, eight South African batsmen were rapidly dismissed in a shade over 21 overs. This collapse – from 65 for two to 130 all out in under a session – was effected primarily by Mohammed Shami, who in turn was assisted brilliantly by the debutant, Jasprit Bumrah. Shami, finally finding his length (today, it was around good length, from where the ball often took off), got rid of the overnight batsmen, Hashim Amla and nightwatchman Kagiso Rabada, while Bumrah shook off the dangerous combination of SA captain Faf du Plessis and de Kock, all of them latched in the net between ‘keeper and gully.
When Bumrah finally dismissed AB de Villiers, holing out to a T20 field for 35 (top-scorer for South Africa, just like he was in the first innings), India needed 208 runs to complete the turnaround. All that lay between them and victory were South Africa’s fast bowlers – a moat filled with three crocodiles. This moat should’ve consisted of a fourth crocodile, Dale Steyn, but he had limped out during the first innings. Still, Philander, Rabada and to a certain extent, Morne Morkel, were more than enough for the Indians, extracting every last drop of juice from a fast flattening wicket. India’s openers, Murali Vijay and the shaky Shikhar Dhawan, put on 30 streaky runs for the first wicket and once both were dismissed in the space of six balls (with India still on 30), in walked Kohli. And in ran Philander, long and hard until he was convinced it was time for his sleight of hand – three away going deliveries followed by one that cut in.
“It was more like two and a half overs of away going deliveries followed by one that cut in,” Philander said later, giving the journalists in the room both a reason to laugh and an insight into his patience. Now, with Kohli gone and India still 137 runs away, it was down to Hardik Pandya, the man who had made possible the turnaround of his team’s fortunes from a similarly impossible situation. Rabada nicked him off for 1, a scoreline that India soon found themselves trailing by in this series.
Brief scores: Cape Town Test -- India 209 & 135 all out (R Ashwin 37, V Kohli 28; V Philander 5/53) lost to South Africa 286 & 130 all out (AB de Villiers 35, A Markram 34; M Shami 3/28, J Bumrah 3/29) lost by 72 runs.