Clueless India Succumb to South Africa in First Test

Knocked over like ten-pins in the morning session, and deprived of the services of their most experienced bowler, South Africa were staring at a first Newlands defeat since readmission against a side that wasn’t Australia. Mohammed Shami (3 for 28) and Jasprit Bumrah (3 for 39) scripted a stunning turnaround under cloudy skies, leaving India to get 208 for victory in the afternoon sunshine.

But if you could choose one bowler to save you in these conditions, it would be Vernon Philander, who averages 18 on home soil and whose mastery of subtle movement makes him near unplayable on a helpful surface. Philander it was that winkled out the trio of Murali Vijay, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma to effectively shut the door on Indian hopes. And after Ravichandran Ashwin (37) and Bhuvneshwar Kumar had induced a few jitters with a 49-run stand after tea, he returned to giftwrap a 72-run win with three wickets in four balls.

Ashwin was brilliantly caught by Quinton de Kock standing up to the stumps, and Shami and Bumrah gave slip catches to Faf du Plessis as Philander finished with outstanding figures of 6 for 42 in 15.4 overs.

The drama began almost as soon as India emerged after lunch. Vijay had made just one when Philander was certain he had him leg before. Richard Kettleborough was too, but when Vijay reviewed, replays showed the ball clearing the stumps. With both openers then deflecting the ball into gaps, India raced along at four an over.

On 12, Vijay had another decision overturned, this time a catch behind off Philander. Replays showed the bat striking pad as the ball whizzed past. But any thought that this was going to be India’s day quickly vanished as they lost 3 for 9.

Shikhar Dhawan was first to go. Out to a miscued pull in the first innings, he was out to a stroke that was neither pull nor fend. Morne Morkel celebrated exultantly as the ball looped up to Chris Morris, the substitute, at gully. Soon after, Philander’s immaculate off-stump line would not be denied. There were no doubts or recourse to reviews after Vijay edged one low to AB de Villiers’ left at third slip.

Having breached India’s most prolific partnership (Vijay-Pujara), South Africa quickly accounted for Pujara as well. Morkel was the man, angling one in at the splice of the bat. The outside edge was taken by de Kock, even as Kohli turned away in dismay.

He himself worked the ball around busily, as though it were a 50-over run chase. With Rohit slowly playing himself in at the other end, the listing ship stabilized. With the runs mounting, du Plessis turned to Philander, who had already bowled a six-over spell. The locals will never forget the 5 for 15 that sent Australia tumbling to 47 all out just over six years ago, and he summoned up the same levels of skills to see off the two relatively set batsmen.

First, Kohli played around one that moved in to his pads. The desperate review was in vain, and the situation became truly dire in Philander’s next over as Rohit wafted his bat at one well outside off stump. The inside edge hung him out to dry, and South Africa had a tight grip on the game.

There was still Hardik Pandya, whose first innings 93 was the highest score of the match. But his laced-with-risk approach didn’t pay off this time, as he bunted a full delivery from Kagiso Rabada straight to de Villiers in the cordon. When Rabada trapped Wriddhiman Saha in front on the stroke of tea, the South African flags waved and the chants and cheers let you know exactly which way the game was headed.

Ravichandran Ashwin offered a sliver of hope for India
Ravichandran Ashwin offered a sliver of hope for India

If the afternoon was a nightmare of the Barbados-1997 variety, India’s morning had played out like a Bollywood dream sequence.  Shami set things up with two wickets in the first six overs, before Bumrah made short work of the middle order. Bhuvneshwar, who had made way for the greater pace of Bumrah, then returned to wrap it up, with the last eight wickets falling in 21.2 overs.

The first of those wasn’t without controversy. Hashim Amla tried to cover-drive a ball that was well wide of his off stump, and the thick outside edge appeared to be caught by Rohit Sharma at gully. Michael Gough, the umpire, certainly thought so, indicating a soft signal of ‘out’ as he asked for replays. Predictably, those were inconclusive, and Amla (4) was on his way.

Rabada could then only fend at a searing delivery from round the wicket. Kohli took the catch that meant South Africa were once again reliant on the old firm of de Villiers and du Plessis to guide them out of strife. But unlike in the first innings, du Plessis didn’t make it past a skittish start. Bumrah, who had cranked up the pace, produced a brute of a lifter that he could only glove behind.

South Africa go 1-0 up in the series
South Africa go 1-0 up in the series

De Kock’s cameo in the first innings had hurt India, and in the second innings, they went round the wicket to him to cramp him for room. The tactic worked too, as Bumrah got prodigious inward movement and the thinnest of inside edges through to Saha. Kettleborough’s initial decision was not out, but India reviewed immediately, and the Snickometer showed a tell-tale spike.

Philander then wasted a review as Shami thudded one into his pads, and de Villiers had no option but to start hitting out. Maharaj did too, but the returning Bhuvneshwar soon sent him on his way, courtesy an another edge to the keeper. Morkel followed in similar fashion, and there were then raucous cheers as Dale Steyn, ruled out of the rest of the tour with a heel injury, came out to bat in a moon boot.

He saw off four balls before de Villiers, who top scored with 35, found Bhuvneshwar at deep midwicket, one of the eight men Kohli had stationed on the fence for exactly that purpose. From being rank outsiders at the start of play, India went to lunch in control of their own destiny. But even under blue skies, they had no answer to the genius of Philander.

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