CENTURION – At 4.38pm (local time) on Saturday all was well with the South African team.
Hashim Amla looked cool and calm in that manner of his, Faf du Plessis was keeping the ball out and nudging the odd single and India’s bowlers were showing signs of tiredness, perfectly understandable in the baking heat in which they had to work all day.
By 5.19pm, after Keshav Maharaj had blocked a full toss from Jasprit Bumrah to end the first day, the glum look was on Du Plessis’s face. His opposite number Virat Kohli was applauding his players off the field, in that enthusiastic way of his that can get under the opposition’s skin.
South Africa were their own worst enemies in those final 41 minutes of the day. Du Plessis was culpable too – in fact probably the most culpable given his part in the run out of Amla.
The South African captain had already appeared miffed on the eve of this Test about the look of the pitch. It was too brown and too dry. Fortunately for him, the toss went his way, he got to bat first and although the new ball was always a threat, once it softened batting became easier.
Kohli had in fact employed all five of his bowlers within the first 20 overs so desperate was he to find a way into the South African batting order – again featuring six front-line batsmen.
Aiden Markram and Dean Elgar were resolute though. The lack of seam movement made this a less challenging surface than Newlands, although you wouldn’t have thought that from the way Elgar played. He is struggling for rhythm and timing and right now every ball looks like a hand grenade.
The opposite was true of Markram. His technique looked tighter than was the case in the first Test (that lack of seam movement here, breeding more confidence) and some of his shot-making was breathtaking, particularly the drives off both back and front foot.
Markram enjoys seeing the scoreboard tick over and while India tried hard to keep him in check, he very cleverly sort out singles – a high proportion of which came when he nudged the ball off his hips on the leg-side.
No damage was done in the wickets column at lunch, but the fact that Ravi Ashwin got a couple to turn in the first session, might have raised the level of irritation for the South African skipper. Home advantage means pace and bounce, seam movement is okay even, but NO spin. And there was spin.
So Ashwin got to work after lunch, and dismissed Elgar, who got into a tangle as he came down the pitch to attack, the ball spun and most importantly bounced and in trying to re-adjust his stroke Elgar pushed the ball to Murali Vijay at silly point.
Nevermind, Markram was looking imperious. Amla who’d joined him had some luck go his way when Hardik Pandya missed a difficult chance at short midwicket, but otherwise the veteran no.3 look composed. The pair added 63 runs for the second wicket, before Markram got himself in trouble against Ashwin by trying to cut a ball that was too close to the body and which he feathered to India’s wicket-keeper Parthiv Patel, a late replacement for Wriddhiman Saha, who’d pulled a hamstring in the warm-ups.
It was agonising for the 23-year-old opener, who was dismissed for the second time in the 90s in his short Test career, but it was also another demonstration of his prodigious talent.
A scratchy AB de Villiers made just 20, and then it appeared as though Du Plessis and Amla would see it through to stumps.
And then, well...Du Plessis called Amla through for a single that wasn’t on, Pandya produced a moment of magnificent skill and athleticism to run the latter out for 82, Quinton de Kock went first ball to Ashwin and Vernon Philander ran down the pitch inexplicably thinking a single was available when it wasn’t.
It was a catastrophic conclusion to the day for the hosts. For India, it was a gift, but one for which they’d worked very hard, Ashwin in particular who bowled 31 overs - taking 3/90 - was outstanding, while Ishant Sharma deserves credit for maintaining excellent control of line and length across three spells.
The pace of play was not as frenetic as at Newlands, but the match is no less compelling; those last 41 minutes certainly ensured that.
* Lungi Ngidi became 99th played to earn a Test cap for South Africa in the post-isolation era. He was the enforced change for the Proteas following the series-ending injury suffered by Dale Steyn in Cape Town. Besides Patel, India also included Ishant, rather surprisingly for Bhuvneshwar Kumar, while KL Rahul was picked in place of Shikhar Dhawan.