Sometime on Tuesday, during the second session of play -- the least entertaining session of South Africa-India Test series so far where Faf du Plessis and Vernon Philander, the overnight batsmen, looked to dead bat the visitors out of the contest – Hardik Pandya ran in to bowl. By this juncture of the session, South Africa had extended their over all lead to 239 runs, with captain du Plessis batting on a 97-ball 24, and Vernon Philander on 26 runs off 81 balls. The spectators snored. The Indian fielders around the bat moved gingerly and the slip cordon had stopped chatting.
In such dull environs, Pandya glided in, from the River End, to complete the final ball of his seventh over. Nothing interesting, it goes without saying, had occurred during his first five balls. The final ball, however, pitched just outside du Plessis’s off stump, on good length, and kicked up a cloud of earth. Then, refusing to climb any higher than du Plessis’ ankles, the ball hissed under the South African captain’s cutting blade and rolled an inch past his off stump. Pandya flew into the air at the end of his follow through, palms on his head and screaming. And instantly, the spectators came back to life.
The Indian slip cordon was back to chirping as well. Heard over the stump mic, Virat Kohli said in Hindi: “The ball is staying low, bowl it there, bowl it there, Pandya!” Rohit Sharma, at gully, clapped his hands together and said, “Sabaash,” and then bent his back low and shadow-practiced imaginary deliveries that were, in his head at least, staying just as low.
Intermittently, for the rest of South Africa’s target-setting innings and true to a weary, abrasive Day Four pitch, some balls soared up from a length and the odd ball stayed low. But not low enough like that Pandya delivery for the remainder of South Africa’s innings, which had by its end collectively amassed a lead of 286 runs. To win this Test and square the series, then, India needed 287 to win.
Now, the Indians walked out to bat. And in the space of 54 incredible minutes, the low bounce would become a rule-of-thumb, causing enough havoc for Mohammed Shami (the pick of the Indian bowlers with four wickets on Tuesday) to slap his forehead with his hand to show his disgust during the press conference and say: “Pata nahi kya sochke aisa wicket diya.” I cannot understand what they were thinking when they gave us such a wicket. The Indians, during their chase, did not have much time to think about the pitch either, for that was the rapidity with which wickets fell during the chase, all but ending India’s hopes of a comeback in this series.
At stumps on Day Four, deflated Indian fans left the SuperSport Park in Centurion with the national flag tucked under their arms, disbelieving of just how swiftly India’s hopes had vanished in the space of eight overs. From 11 for no loss, India had fallen to 26 for three. And the dear departed were the openers, Murali Vijay and KL Rahul; and most crucially, captain Virat Kohli – who, in the first innings, had scored the only hundred of this match.
Two of these three wickets, Vijay’s and Kohli’s, were due to the ball staying lower than the batsman (and perhaps the bowler) had expected. On the last ball of the seventh over, Vijay, from the non-striker’s end, watched a Vernon Philander ball skid under Rahul’s defence and miss the bottom of his off stump by a coat of varnish. This awareness, however, did not come in handy when he was on strike the following over. Kagiso Rabada, with his skill, got the ball the cut in drastically towards Vijay and the pitch did the rest. The ball rushed on without bouncing, took the inside edge of Vijay’s willow and clattered on to the stumps. In him, India had lost the maker of 9 of their 11 runs.
Rahul was the next to go. During a four-over period of South African hostility where no runs were scored, the opener, then shackled on a 28-ball 4, tried to get things moving with a four. He cut an inward drifting ball bowled by the Test debutant, Lungi Ngidi. Ngidi’s line was too close to his body and Rahul only ended up spooning a simple catch to backward point. As he exited the field, he crossed paths with the incoming batsman, Kohli.
If India were to stand a chance of coming close to South Africa's target, Kohli had to replicate his first innings effort. But the Indian captain never looked fluent at the crease, even while he scored a much needed boundary for his team. The leg side ball bowled by Ngidi stayed awfully low, squaring up the batsman before taking a leading edge for four runs. The next time he faced Ngidi, Kohli wasn’t so lucky. To end the sixteenth over, Ngidi went wide of his crease and angled the ball into Kohli’s body, crashing into his pads lower than he had intended. Kohli reviewed the decision purely on his reputation, and even before the ball-tracker appeared on the large screen, he began making his way back to the pavilion, dragging with him the hopes of even the most optimistic Indian fan.
Brief scores: Centurion, Day Four – India 307 & 35 for three in 23 overs (C Pujara 11 not out, M Vijay 9; L Ngidi 2/14, K Rabada 1/9) versus South Africa 335 & 258 all out in 91.3 overs (AB de Villiers 80, D Elgar 61; M Shami 4/49, J Bumrah 3/70).