JOHANNESBURG – Maybe it was only a bit of fun at the end of a difficult series. Maybe it was an indication that the team was still loose, able to enjoy itself, smile in the face of adversity. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was a sign of weakness, a sign it was so exasperated, it no longer knew what to do.
Faf du Plessis employed a specialist “coin tosser” - Temba Bavuma - for the pre-match ritual in Ranchi yesterday. It didn’t work. Virat Kohli still called correctly. India still batted first. India ended the first day, as they have most days in the series, in a thoroughly dominant position.
It might be easy to dismiss the “coin tosser” incident with a laugh, but we shouldn’t. Taken in context - with the series lost, the previous Test in which the Proteas copped a comprehensive beating, the fact they made five changes, including the selection of two debutants and that the batting order has been drastically reconfigured - and the “coin tosser” episode looks terrible.
“It’s pathetic,” former Proteas captain Graeme Smith, exclaimed on commentary. “What kind of a message are you sending?”
Indeed, if you were India what did you make of it?
TOSS | 3rd Test, ICC World Test Championship at Ranchi
The Captains are in the middle on an overcast morning in Ranchi. Faf has brought Temba to be his proxy Captain and call the toss.
It’s hard to think Virat Kohli would do something like that. He famously claimed when his side toured South Africa last year, that his players wouldn’t complain about pitches. Instead it was South Africa’s players who moaned about the surface in the second Test at SuperSport Park, which wasn’t to their liking because it lacked the pace and bounce they expected from the venue. South Africa won that Test, but lost the next one, on a surface that really was more suited to them than India.
It was a display of India’s toughness, a psychological message to the opposition and in fact to all their opponents. It’s why they are Test cricket’s No1 team.
South Africa has shown itself to be a confused outfit, one that allows itself to get distracted by silly things like the toss. Actually it’s not just the Proteas who look confused right now, the toss was symbolic of so much else about South African cricket that is crying out for clarity and honesty.
It was left to Kagiso Rabada to get the players focused on the cricket itself, by bowling a magnificent first spell, that brought him two wickets. That first session in which the Proteas picked up three wickets - with Anrich Nortje claiming the prized scalp of Kohli lbw - was easily the bowling unit’s best session in the series.
And it was really all about Rabada, bowling with pace, finding movement off the pitch and through the air. As much as the raw skill, it was Rabada’s attitude that stood out. Whatever silliness was going on at the toss, Rabada made sure he was sending a very serious message to the Indians with his bowling. He has gradually improved throughout this series and while the England series is still two months away, the signs from Rabada are encouraging for those four Tests.
The wickets of Mayank Agarwal and Cheteshwar Pujara were just reward for his efforts and if there had been more consistent support at the other end, South Africa could have had India in trouble before lunch.
But neither Lungi Ngidi, nor Nortjé, could sustain a line around the off-stump, and too often their lengths were too full.
As a result Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane knew they need only see off Rabada, and they could thrive against the rest. Following lunch India scored 134 runs in 29 overs, with the two spinners, George Linde and the returning Dane Piedt, unable to keep the Indian pair quiet.
Rohit, notched up his third hundred of the series, again taking a particular liking to Piedt.
Again, the Indians will go into a day’s play in control of the match, with Rohit and Rahane’s partnership currently worth 166 runs.
As the series draws to a close, only one team looks like it really knows what it is doing.