JOHANNESBURG – Faf du Plessis had hoped for a pitch with a bit of pace and bounce – but nothing out of the ordinary.
However, this surface had pace, bounce and much else, making batting a very complicated exercise on day one of the final Test between the Proteas and India on Wednesday.
Under cloudy skies, and on a surface with a good covering of live grass, Virat Kohli’s decision to bat was a gutsy one, and not only because of the conditions on Wednesday morning.
India’s batsmen – bar Kohli – have struggled to come to terms not just with the pitches in this series, but also South Africa’s aggressive bowling.
The home team’s seam bowling was further supplemented by the inclusion of Andile Phehlukwayo for this third Sunfoil Test, somewhat of a surprise ahead of Keshav Maharaj, whose services Du Plessis and the selectors felt would not be required on this surface.
Until Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara’s half-centuries on Wednesday, the only other times an Indian batsman has gone past 50 in this series was Kohli’s awesome century in the first innings in Centurion, and Hardik Pandya’s thrilling, counter-attacking 93 at Newlands.
Even at Centurion where conditions were more to their comfort, the Indians, Kohli excepted, struggled against South Africa’s quartet of quicks.
It was never going to be easy here on Wednesday, but Kohli reckoned runs on the board was the best way to apply pressure on the South African team at a ground, where India have never lost a Test.
Quite how valuable a first innings of 187 is remains to be seen. There were some similarities for India here with South Africa’s first innings at Newlands.
There the Proteas slumped to 12/3 before AB de Villiers and Du Plessis added 114 for the fourth wicket, a partnership that provided the foundation for victory.
South Africa scored 286 in that innings, with India reckoning it was about 40 runs more than they should have had.
Here India crashed to 13/2, bringing together their two best batsmen. Through luck and terrific skill, they got through the first session.
At lunch, India would have felt alright about being 45/2, because it felt like it should have been a lot worse.
Vernon Philander, playing in his 50th Test, couldn’t have dreamt for better conditions, and he had the ball talking throughout a superb eight-over opening spell.
He conceded just one run, bowled seven maidens, beat the outside edge, the inside edge and should have Pujara lbw before he’d scored, only for umpire Ian Gould to say no, and have the TV replays support him with an ‘umpire’s call’ when South Africa reviewed.
Perhaps the other Proteas bowlers could have bowled better lines, with Morné Morkel in particular struggling in his first spell.
After lunch, South Africa had a terrible hour, losing their lengths along with their lines, while the fielding lacked discipline and precision.
Kohli and Pujara were able to take advantage, adding 84 runs for the third wicket. Kohli, naturally was the more aggressive, driving the ball beautifully when the South Africans erred in line or length.
Pujara – playing an innings reminiscent of his very fine hundred here four years ago – defended and left well.
Where he differed from his first innings in Cape Town – where scored 26 off 92 balls in over two and half hours at the crease – was a willingness attack when there was width.
He hit eight fours in his innings of 50, but his wicket – to a fine delivery from Phehlukwayo – was the start of an Indian collapse that saw them lose their last six wickets for 43 runs.
Overall, despite their standards slipping in that hour after lunch, South Africa’s bowlers utilised the conditions very well.
And had the fielders held on to the catches, especially Philander when Kohli had 11 and De Villiers when Kohli had 32, India would have been in serious trouble.
As it is, they have runs on the board, not many of them, but something that on this surface especially they can bowl to.