JOHANNESBURG – Play on day one of the Test series between India and South Africa only lasted 59.1 overs and five minutes shy of two sessions, but it felt like a whole lot longer for the tourists.
Chasing leather will do that. As will watching it fly over your head. On the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, whose name is attached to the trophy the two teams are competing for in this series, only one team was in a mood to celebrate.
Faf du Plessis and his men would have been grateful for the rain that curtailed the opening day’s play with India 202/0. But there will also be a sense of trepidation as they make their way back to the Dr. Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy ACA-VDCA Cricket Stadium in Visakhapatnam on Thursday morning.
It may only have been two sessions of play, but it already looks like only one team can win the Test match.
Unlike the last two series’ between these sides, there was little talk in the build-up about the pitch. And watching events unfold it was clear why - it was a very normal first day pitch in India; it was dry, the pace was slow and the bounce low. Also as centurion Rohit Sharma pointed out, the South African spinners got very little purchase out of it.
The Proteas picked three frontline spinners; Keshav Maharaj, Dane Piedt and Senuran Muthusamy got a Test debut. But they were all ineffective. Only Maharaj beat the outside edge of Sharma’s bat in the latter stages of the second session, but otherwise there was not much on offer for anyone.
Muthusamy said the decision to employ the three of them was taken after the leadership group had seen the pitch at training on Tuesday. “We saw the wicket was quite dry we thought we’d go with three spin options,” said the 25 year old left-arm spinner.
“We were expecting a lot more turn, but that wasn’t the case. It looks like a good cricket wicket. It looked a bit soft and tacky in the morning and maybe gripped a little bit and then it evened out as the day progressed.”
Then he added, somewhat ominously for the South Africans: “I’m sure it will spin a little more as the game progresses.”
Before then though, Sharma and his opening partner Mayank Agarwal will very much like to continue their dominance. The pair had to survive a tricky first hour in which Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander threatened regularly with the new ball. If there was one criticism of the Proteas pair it is that they didn’t make the Indian openers play enough, with insufficient balls targeting the stumps.
Nevertheless both Indian batsmen deserve credit. As is the case with many Test teams India has battled to find an opening combination, and Sharma, who has struggled when picked in the middle order previously, made the selectors and his captain look good by stroking his fourth Test century from his new spot at the top of the order.
It was an innings in which the only trouble for Sharma - outside of that first hour - was deciding how far to hit some of his sixes. There were five throughout his innings that also included 12 fours as he finished the first day unbeaten on 115. He and Agarwal, who was not out on 84, made hay against the spinners, with Piedt in particular suffering as he conceded 43 runs in seven overs.
Unless there is a catastrophic collapse by the home team on Thursday morning, it’s highly unlikely South Africa will be able to force the play and try and go for victory. That will put a lot of pressure on their batting line-up and by choosing to go with six specialists and two all-rounders, the demands on everyone will be immense.
They will be grateful that more rain has been forecast for the region over the coming days.