To begin the 35th over of India’s target-setting innings, Kagiso Rabada made a U-turn at the top of his mark and glided in to bowl from the Golf Course End. Rabada’s right wrist released the ball on good length, close to the batsman Murali Vijay’s stride. But when the ball reached Vijay, it was in the form of a bouncer. Lifting up almost vertically after hitting a crack, the ball crunched into Vijay’s gloves and the batsman quickly dropped his bat and doubled over, one palm pressed into the other in pain. As Vijay received medical attention from the Indian team physio, the umpires, Aleem Dar and Ian Gould, congregated over the wicket and squinted their eyes over the misbehaving spot.
This wasn’t the first occasion on which the pitch played catalyst to a Vijay body blow. Just 11 overs earlier, Morne Morkel had floated the ball on good length as well and the leather spat up nastily and crushed Vijay in the box. The umpires had taken a fleeting look at the developing crack then, just as they had when Hashim Amla took a few hits to ribs on Day Two. But after Vijay’s latest smack to the hand in the 35th over, a small crack, barely visible under a layer of grass, spouted from within it a storm that would, by the end of the day, bring this Test match to its knees – threatening to end both the ongoing game, and the series, abruptly.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As Vijay received treatment, the umpires decided to have a word with the other batsman, Virat Kohli, captain of the Indian team. Regarding dangerous pitches the law of the game accords, “If the on-field umpires decide that it is dangerous or unreasonable for play to continue on the match pitch, they shall stop play and immediately advise the ICC Match Referee.” The following two corollaries state: “The on-field umpires and the ICC Match Referee shall then consult with both captains” and “If the captains agree to continue, play shall resume.”
Had the match been called off by the decision-makers with India on 84/3 (a slender lead of 77 with nearly half the Test, wicket-wise, still to play), hardly anyone would’ve raised an eyebrow. But the match referee, Andy Pycroft in this case, wasn’t consulted by the umpires; only Kohli was. And to give his leadership credit where it's due, Kohli insisted on getting on with the game. So it did. And during lunch, for Supersport TV, former captains, India’s Sunil Gavaskar and South Africa’s Kepler Wessels, spent their lunch analysing the demon in the pitch.
Gavaskar: “The crack is just 6 metres from the base of the stump so this is an awkward place because it is so close to the batsman that he has to play at it and has every chance of getting hit. Because of the variable bounce once it hits the crack, it can either stay low and rise up sharply. There’s no certainty and that makes the pitch almost impossible to play on.”
Wessels: “It’s very dangerous for the batsman. He should only be worrying about facing the skill-set of the bowler and not worry about getting hurt by the pitch.”
In such conditions that were rapidly worsening with the passage of time, India dug deep and ploughed on in the second session of the day, even as stray whispers of abandoning the match grew louder. It wasn’t and Kohli tamed the crack, pitch and SA’s bowlers and scored 41. Ajinkya Rahane did all that and more, he even fought for his pride, and top scored with 48. And most incredible of all, India’s lower order, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami in particular, managed to score 33 and 27 respectively, while facing the wrath of the best seam attack in the world on a ridiculously skewed wicket.
The umpires didn’t stop play when the South African bowlers came around the wicket with the singular intention of peppering India's tailenders with short-pitched stuff to their faces. They did halt the game, however, when a South African opener couldn’t deal with a delivery that had nothing to do with the crack in the first place.
But once again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. On a wicket deemed unsuitable and unhealthy for batting, India scored 247 runs in their second innings – an effort that is put into perspective when you realise that neither team had breached the 200-run mark in starkly better batting conditions during their respective first innings. It was, hence, always going to take a miracle of sorts for the South African batsmen to conquer the target of 241 runs and push for a win. Instead, Deal Elgar, South Africa’s opener otherwise known for his grit, chose to push for an exit through the backdoor. It didn’t go down well with anyone watching -- the press (inclusive of the local media), the players, the pundits and the public.
In the ninth over of South Africa’s innings, in what would eventually be the final over of the day (and also threaten to be the final over of the Test), Jasprit Bumrah – India’s bowling hero from the first innings – was introduced into the attack. The first ball he bowled rose off a length and hit Elgar on the shoulder. This sudden rise could well have been due to the crack, but the next time Elgar was hit, off the third ball, it sure as hell wasn’t.
Running in from the Golf Course End, Bumrah bent his back and bowled a regulation bouncer, well short of length and well behind the good length area which contained the crack. And the ball, as it should have, rose and climbed towards the batsman’s face. When Elgar’s helmet was hit, it was due to nothing else but the bounce on offer coupled with the batsman’s misjudgment. Yet, for this commonplace occurrence in Test cricket, the game was punished.
The umpires met and together they conspired with match referee Pycroft, who had by now made his way to the field. Disregarding common sense and vox populi, the three of them hauled the players off the field. Elgar was the first to disappear and then the umpires, even as eleven, protesting Indians stayed behind as forgotten residues on a desolate cricket field.
Note: After lengthy discussions with both captains and team managements in the match referee’s room that carried on past sun down, the officials have decided that play will resume on Day Four.