CENTURION – Most of the Christmas cheer on the opening day of the Test series between the Proteas and Pakistan came for the bowlers of the competing teams.
Fifteen wickets fell on an exhilarating day giving credence to the pre-series hype that it would be the bowlers that would dominate as Pakistan were dismissed for 181.
The South Africans ended the day on 127/5, trailing by 54 runs.
Sarfraz Ahmed, Pakistan’s captain, took what seems the safest option by batting upon winning the toss.
The feeling in the visiting dressing room, based on their coach Mickey Arthur’s in-depth knowledge of conditions here, is that the pitch will get more ‘up and down’ as it bakes in the hot highveld sun, making batting last a very scary prospect.
Not that batting first wasn’t a daunting exercise either.
While the surface was understandably slow owing to the fair covering of grass, there was lots of movement, something the seamers on both sides utilised to their advantage.
Duanne Olivier chose a different option – brute force – to obtain his success.
His first two overs had cost 12 runs, with a couple of driven fours from Azhar Ali causing him to change tact.
Following the mid-morning drinks break, Olivier took to thumping the ball into the surface, extracting some disconcerting bounce which the Pakistanis really couldn’t handle.
Shan Masood, a late replacement for Haris Sohail, who re-injured his knee, was unfortunate to be bowled off his arm, while Azhar couldn’t get on top of a nasty bouncer that followed him and which he edged towards the gully, where Theunis de Bruyn took an outstanding catch.
Having placed doubts in the minds of the Pakistani batsmen with that short ball, Olivier then took to targeting the stumps after lunch, dismissing Asad Shafiq, Sarfraz and Mohammad Amir all with deliveries that were pitched up.
In the process, he registered his maiden Test ‘five-for,’ eventually finishing with 6/37 from 14 overs.
Kagiso Rabada was superb too, moving the ball one way then another off the surface, and on another day, he would have picked up more than just three wickets.
The key innings for Pakistan came from Babar Azam, who counter-attacked intuitively, winning a thrilling battle with the record-breaking Dale Steyn in the process.
Babar, better known for his exploits in the one-day arena, played some sparkling strokes through the off-side in a fine innings of 71 (79 balls, 127m, 15x4) that ultimately lent the Pakistan total of 181 respectability.
Babar’s knock was given further value by the brilliance of the touring team’s bowlers. Mohammad Amir in particular produced a very special performance using all the assistance off the pitch to bamboozle the South African top-order.
At 43/4, the hosts were in serious trouble, but a 69-run fifth-wicket stand between De Bruyn and Temba Bavuma help provide some stability.
Bavuma’s play in the last 40 minutes was a delight, especially against the leg-spinner Yasir Shah, with one very fine sweep followed later by a cover drive – where he used his feet to get to the ball – shots of the highest quality.
He will resume on day two on 38 in the company of Steyn, who scored 13 as the nightwatchman.
It demands batting of the standard seen from Babar and Bavuma to have success on this pitch.
It might settle down on Thursday, but South Africa will be desperate to eke out any kind of lead, because batting last here will not be a very festive experience.@shockerhess