From the River End of SuperSport Park, Mohammed Shami ran in to bowl to Hashim Amla. This was the 47th over of the first day’s play in Centurion – i.e. more than half the overs had been completed -- and only one man had so far been dismissed. Dean Elgar, South Africa’s out-of-form opener. Shami bowled the ball, the final one of this over, outside Amla’s off-stump, back-of-a-length and with a hint of reverse swing. Amla, not accounting for the late movement, played down the wrong line and inside edged the ball on to his back pad; a nick that could’ve well clattered on to the stumps. Immediately, the spectators packing the stands oohed. Not due to Amla’s rare shot. No. They were oohing the events unfolding 22 yards away from Amla.
At the end of his follow-through, Shami was doubled over in pain. First, he held his knees and sat on his haunches and then he massaged his neck. Finally, grabbing his forehead with both his palms (the official reason given at the end of the day was ‘headache’), Shami rose to his feet and did what the South African batsmen had seldom done for the first 80 overs of the day – make the slow, dazed walk back to the pavilion. It was a moment that perfectly summed up India’s health for a good chunk of the first day of the second Test; plenty of half chances that never turned full, plenty of being reduced to their knees and of course, plenty of headaches.
Amla was then on 21. When on 30, he nicked Ishant Sharma down the leg side and was put down by a diving Parthiv Patel. As Parthiv covered his face in his cap, Ishant sat down mid-pitch in disbelief -- the two new faces in this Indian side (in for Bhuvneshwar Kumar and wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha, respectively) cut sorry figures, just like the nine men around them. This, one realised at this point and on this pancake of a pitch, was going to be a long day of labour for the Indians. And it was, until the 81st over of the day, where South Africa found themselves at 246 for the loss of just three wickets, with two-well set batsmen, Amla batting on 82 and captain Faf du Plessis on 12, at the crease and a short while away from the drawing of stumps. Here, just as long, solemn shadows fell across the ground, the Indians, rather magically, found reasons to cheer.
It began with the run-out of Amla. Playing with soft hands, like he had all day long, Amla placed a Hardik Pandya ball by the vacant short-leg region and set off on what should’ve been his 83rd run on Saturday. But Pandya, galloping along the length of the pitch after his follow-through, collected the ball and in one swift motion turned around and flattened the stumps at the non-striker’s end. Amla, not the quickest between the wicket, was short by a whole yard. He was gone and two balls later, in R Ashwin’s new over, so was the new batsman, Quinton de Kock.
First ball of his innings, de Kock lazily poked at an Ashwin floater without his feet and a sharp catch at slips by Virat Kohli saw him dismissed for a golden duck. In walked Vernon Philander. And out walked Vernon Philander. Ball watching, he set off for a needless run even as du Plessis stuck his hand out at the other end and Pandya had affected his second run-out in the space of seconds. Just like that, the South African dressing room had lost a whole lot more than just three wickets for five runs in the space of 14 balls; they had also crucially lost their momentum, a motion that had threatened to potentially raise over 450 runs by the end of the second day.
As 246/3 became 269/6 by the time stumps were finally drawn, Aiden Markram, South Africa’s top-scorer with 94, had recalibrated that figure to 350. “That’ll be our first target for tomorrow, 350. Anything above that will be good,” Markram, more hopeful than assured, said at the presser. This was Test cricket at its best – just as the dominant team nodded off, lulled by their own success, the weary opposition struck back. The bowler who made most of those inroads was Ashwin.
Bowling almost non-stop on a Day One pitch in South Africa, lest we forget, Ashwin toiled for his end-of-day collection of three wickets – de Kock and the openers, Markram and Dean Elgar. At the press conference that followed, he looked a content man. “Today morning when we came to the ground, it looked like a wicket that was really flat and had to have a spinner in the game. Personally, I was very happy that the grass was taken off as it brought me into contention,” he said. “That’s the way it goes, right? I have seen a lot of cricket matches where people who haven’t been in contention to play the match come in and get those wickets. So, this was one of those days.”
According to the script, Ashwin, who later said, "I would like to think I have kept us in the game", wasn’t supposed to be the hero of the day. One of the four pacers – Shami, Ishant, Jasprit Bumrah and Pandya -- was. But Shami was the first to lose his lines and lengths on a flat pitch, in just the fourth over of the morning. He bowled one short and wide to Markram, who cut him past point for his first boundary. When Shami adjusted that length to full and straight next ball, he was whipped through midwicket for four more.
Markram went after Bumrah in the 21st over, punishing the pacer for his varying lengths with two consecutive fours. In the 25th, he repeated the back-to-back fours act against Pandya, to get to his 50. But just as he was looking set for his third Test hundred, he played a nothing shot on a nothing pitch against Ashwin, and was caught behind, six short of a three-figure mark. His success and fall, then, resembled South Africa’s day in a nutshell. Inspired for the most part; insipid just as it began to matter.
Brief scores: Centurion Day 1 – South Africa 269 for six in 90 overs (A Markram 94, H Amla 82; R Ashwin 3/80, I Sharma 1/32) versus India.