India vs South Africa: A day of two collapses at Centurion – one expected, one unsurprising

Eighteen (18) wickets fell on day three in the first Test at Centurion. Ordinarily, such an instance in the sub-continent would provoke conversation regarding quality of the playing surface. Spin-friendly pitches aren’t good enough for Test cricket , apparently, never mind if batsmen have lost the art of negating turn and bounce.

The Centurion pitch isn’t your regular raging turner. Ever. In fact, even in 2018, when India were touring South Africa in the middle of a drought, the grass at Supersport Park was baked to a crisp. And yet, it didn’t turn enough as India lost on a track that Faf du Plessis termed as more “Mumbai than Centurion”.

What the Centurion track does offer, in 2018 and so in 2021, is bounce. It can be uneven and disconcerting for the batsmen, home and touring alike. India had discovered the dry, cracked surface too much to handle, when a tank-like debutant Lungi Ngidi bundled them out here on the previous trip.

Lungi Ngidi posted figures of 6/71 to run through India’s batting on Day 3 of the first Test at Centurion. AP

It was d?j? vu for Indian batsmen on day three at Centurion then. In two successive Test innings at Centurion, Ngidi has picked 12 wickets against the same Indian batting line-up. 6-39 in the second innings back in 2018 and now 6-71 in the first innings this tour, the pacer has put much-the-same Indian batting line-up to the sword. There is some differentiation between the two contests though.

To begin with, there’s the pitch, which has had a proper green tinge from the beginning. There is no more drought in South Africa, and it has helped keep the track lively and replete with bounce. The cracks are still there, a hallmark of this surface, and Ngidi enjoyed bowling on this wicket after rain had washed away day two. Even so, perhaps nobody saw India would collapse so quickly, losing 7 wickets for 49 runs.

Extra bounce did in both KL Rahul and Ajinkya Rahane. Rahul wouldn’t mind too much, but how costly will that dismissal prove for Rahane, who is batting on borrowed time? The combination of Rabada’s movement, Ngidi’s pace, and the iota of additional bounce both can extract on a two-paced up-down pitch, was too much to handle for the Indian batsmen. R Ashwin and Rishabh Pant next, and India were 296-7. Maybe it was unexpected on the day, but this collapse was unsurprising too.

India’s batting strength, or lack of, has been the subject of national debate for some time now. It is quite a coincidence that when Indian openers have finally given a reason for cheer across Australia, England and South Africa in 2021 alone, the middle and lower order has simply faltered. So much so, some would say it is now beyond redemption.

Virat Kohli’s inconsistency (who knew this word could ever be used), the lengthy poor run of Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, and Rishabh Pant’s rediscovery of his pre-2021 dubious form has meant that India has always gone in a batsman short in their last five Tests. Despite this flaw in strategy, which cost them in England, the team management continues to deploy it. Meanwhile, Hanuma Vihari and Shreyas Iyer sit on the bench twiddling thumbs.

The point herein is not to revisit that debate, for it seems never ending. Instead, it is to highlight where India might be missing a trick. To persist with a flawed strategy is always a risk, but there is also a fine line between risk and foolishness. South Africa knows well that this is India’s weak point. Despite their bowling attack lacking experience, they have enough capability – in Rabada and Ngidi – to exploit this weakness in home conditions.

It puts this whole series – and contest – into perspective. It is not so much a competition between bat and ball per se. Rather, it is a contest between Indian batting and South African batting. And therein, it is a contest between Indian bowling and South African bowling, to see who can take more advantage of the opposition lineup’s batting weaknesses.

Mohammed Shami brought up his 200 Test wickets milestone while bringing South Africa apart at Centurion. AP

Day 3 provided a fine look at how this series will progress. Any collapse the Indian batting suffers, the South African batting can suffer worse. Anything South Africa’s bowling can do, the Indian bowling can do better. In Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah, Shardul Thakur and Mohammed Siraj, the visitors boast a wholesome pace attack capable of taking advantage of the pacey conditions on offer. Add R Ashwin to the mix, and this is a bowling attack for anything South African grounds men can throw up.

Tuesday, then, was Shami’s day. Pace and movement, that beautiful upright seam position, for once he didn’t wait for the second innings. Shami did most damage at the top, and then returned to polish off the tail. He also dismissed Temba Bavuma, whilst he and Quinton de Kock were forcing a smallish fight back. This territory is where Shami’s Test bowling graph will proceed to – that bowling balance between attack and defence when the opposition is on top.

Defending with the ball is an art too; holding one end together when there is a mega partnership going on. India found themselves in that position in England a lot whenever Joe Root was at the crease, and they didn’t have an optimal solution to it. Why? Ishant Sharma, chosen for that role, is no longer the bowler he was. Shami will have to step into his shoes now, with Sharma at the fag end of his career, and it will be up to the selectors how to manage workloads.

Back to Centurion, and a 146-run lead going into day four should suffice as a platform. Kohli likes to put 400 on the scoreboard and go for the kill in the second innings, so India will look to do precisely that and take a 1-0 lead in the series. Yes, day 3 was a massive indicator of what the series’ result might be – a comprehensive win in India’s favour.

Anything else would be unexpected, but given India’s batting frailties, not unsurprising.

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