At lunch on the second day of this Johannesburg Test, AB de Villiers had faced all of two balls. The last two balls before the break. Both these balls, bowled by Hardik Pandya, were meticulously blocked by the new batsman. De Villiers, perhaps, wasn’t even expecting to make his way to the middle in this first session given how well South Africa’s nightwatchman, Kagiso Rabada, had been batting.
At times Rabada had looked even more fluent than his more astute batting partner, Hashim Amla, especially when he flicked Jasprit Bumrah off his hips for a couple of boundaries. But Rabada was dismissed for 30 (30 more runs than the Indians had intended) just before the steak break and the hosts’ were 81 for three – only 106 runs behind India’s first innings total, with the most consistent batsman of this series, de Villiers that is, yet to have his say.
In the two completed Test matches of this tour, de Villiers had scored exactly 100 runs in each game. In Cape Town, he had contributed 65 and 35 runs in the two innings (when no other player in either team crossed two figures) and in Centurion, 20 and 80 respectively. The post-lunch session, then, began with the hope of another AB special, one that would in all likelihood take the game away from the Indians. And when he got on strike, off the fourth ball of Ishant Sharma’s session-opening over, the crowd at the Wanderers drummed up their support for their man as the fast bowler ran in.
The ball pitched on de Villiers' off stump and his bat followed the line. Only, Sharma’s good length delivery swung late, missed the bat and crashed into AB’s pads in front of off and middle. The entire Indian team went up in appeal but umpire Aleem Dar was convinced that he wasn’t out. Irritated, Virat Kohli gathered his think tank – ‘keeper Parthiv Patel, first slip Cheteshwar Pujara and the bowler, Ishant – in a huddle and hastily discussed whether to review the decision. Twice in the morning session Kohli had turned to DRS for help and twice he had been snubbed. So, this time around, he was understandably a little more circumspect about seeking intervention.
Kohli decided to not review Dar and within seconds, the cameras caught coach Ravi Shastri gasping in the dressing room, with his index finger raised. De Villiers would’ve been out. For zero. Yet here he was, out but not out.
Few Indian teams in the past would’ve recovered from such a mental blow – a let off to the best batsman from the opposition while also, lest we forget, defending a minuscule lead. But this is no ordinary Indian team; the word ordinary, after all, cannot possibly apply to an Indian side playing five fast bowlers and no spinner. So the pacers toiled on, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar starting his over a few minutes later by bowling a couple of inswingers to Amla. De Villiers had of course noticed this trend when he got on strike and perhaps even knew in his bones that Kumar was going to shape one into him. Yet, when it happened, he had no answer.
The Bhuvneshwar ball began well outside his off stump, only for it swing in viciously, tear through de Villiers’ poke and topple his middle stump. And SA were now 92/4. To dismiss AB for cheap (5 runs), especially after having given him a second life, made all the difference. For a young fast bowler like Bumrah, who had only seen despair in his short Test career that had spanned out fully on this tour, it was an injection of hope.
With more belief than blood running through his veins, Bumrah used the oldest sleight-of-hand in the book to get rid of South Africa's captain, Faf du Plessis. He banged the ball in short and wide of du Plessis’ off stump – so wide that one of them was even called one – three times in a row, before bowling one full and cutting sharply towards the batsman. Du Plessis shouldered his arms and the ball smashed into his off stump.
Bumrah would be involved in each of the dismissals that fell thereafter, with the wickets of Quinton de Kock, Amla, Andile Phehlukwayo and Lungi Ngidi (to collect his maiden five-for), and a catch of Vernon Philander to boot. Amla and Philander, however, hung on a little longer at the crease than the rampaging Indians would’ve liked.
Playing a role similar to Cheteshwar Pujara’s on the first day, Amla persevered through the chaos, scoring at a pace that would never take the game away from India but would always keep South Africa in the picture. By the time he was out for 61, South Africa had reduced the deficit to 18, a deficit that was just about wiped away thanks to a heroic 35 from Philander.
Despite the game now being on equal terms (the hosts led by just 7 runs), a late tilt was expected in South Africa’s favour – what with India having to bat 75 minutes until stumps were drawn and the Indian openers never having had a partnership of more than 30 runs in this series. But instead of opening with their regular combination of KL Rahul and Murali Vijay, the Indian management sent out the latter with wicketkeeper Patel. Mostly to mess with the South African bowlers’ lines and lengths (a left-right batting combination does that) but also to try something different. It worked, sort of – for Patel was dismissed early but when Rahul walked in at number three, he survived. As did Vijay.
When play was called off at 5;30pm in Johannesburg, Vijay and Rahul had added 32 runs (India’s best ‘opening’ stand so far) and India were leading by 42 runs. On a wicket where neither completed innings had breached the 200-run team mark, those 42 runs felt more like 142 runs.
Brief scores: Johannesburg, Day 2 -- India 187 & 49 for one in 17 overs (KL Rahul 16 not out, P Patel 16; V Philander 1/11) lead South Africa 194 all out in 65.5 overs (H Amla 61, V Philander 35; J Bumrah 5/54, B Kumar 3/44) by 42 runs.