India closed 2021 with a convincing win against South Africa at the SuperSport Park in the first Test of the ongoing series. In a match where a whole day’s play was washed out, the Indian bowlers did not face any difficulty in taking 20 South African wickets, even as worries about rain on the last day loomed large in the minds of players and fans. The victory owed as much to the brilliant batting of K L Rahul, who scored a polished 123 in the first innings, as to the pace bowling quartet of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohamed Shami, Mohamed Siraj and Shardul Thakur. Rahul’s century and the 117-run stand for the opening wicket that he shared with Mayank Agarwal helped to lay the foundation for the Indian first innings total of 327, which made all the difference between the two sides as rains on second day made conditions increasingly difficult for batting once play resumed.
This Test saw Rishabh Pant recording his 100th dismissal behind the stumps, a feat which did not get the attention it deserved despite the fact that he reached this landmark in his 26th Test, the fastest by an Indian stumper till date. He broke the record held jointly by Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Wridhiman Saha, who reached this mark in their 36th match, by a mile. For a player whose wicketkeeping skills were not considered to be top grade, this should be taken as a substantive accomplishment. Comparisons tend to be odious but one cannot but remember Rodney Marsh, the legendary Aussie wicketkeeper who was nicknamed “iron gloves” during his early days in international cricket for his ungainly work behind the stumps. Though selected initially for his skills with the willow Marsh soon progressed into one of the best stumpers game has seen, as his tally of 355 victims in Test matches would indicate. “Caught Marsh bowled Lillee" became the most common mode of dismissal for batsmen playing the Aussies on their home turf right through the 1970s and till the duo retired from the game.
More importantly for India, Pant’s achievement also tells the story of the giant strides made by the Indian fast bowlers during the last five years. Swing bowlers and spinners get more wickets through catches in the slips on account of the lateral movement or turn of the ball which forces the batsman to edge it. A wicketkeeper, on the other hand, gets more victims on wickets that offer bounce, where ball rises steeply after pitching or the movement off the seam is gentle, as happens when the ball is delivered at a very high pace. Surfaces, which offer bounce, and surroundings that provide little movement are best utilised by fast bowlers who make the ball climb steeply to catch the edge en route to the player donning the big gloves. Pant’s record stands as proof to the fact that the Indian fast bowlers are bowling fast enough to extract nip and venom on wickets suited for speedsters. This is indeed a far cry from the days when India used to be the land of spin bowlers, where fast bowlers were virtually extinct!
As the contest between the two sides move to the venue of the next game at Johannesburg, one’s thought goes to India’s first ever win over South Africa on their home turf. This happened during the tour of 2006-07 and came as a major surprise in rather difficult circumstances. The previous three visits undertaken by the national side to this country - in 1992, 1996-97 and 2001 had been unsuccessful with the hosts winning the series 1-0, 2-0 and 1-0 respectively. Expectations were low when the tourists landed in South Africa in 2006. There were reports of dissension within the side and the return of Sourav Ganguly to the squad for Tests worried the followers of the game no end, given reports of his fight with coach Greg Chappell. When the visitors were thrashed 0-4 in the five-match One-Day International series, with rains preventing a whitewash, it appeared that a similar after might follow in Tests as well. The South Africans, under Graeme Smith, had a balanced side and earned a reputation of being almost invincible in their home conditions. So, even the staunchest supporter of Indian side looked towards the Test matches with worry and trepidation, fearing yet another round of drubbing by the hosts.
But India surprised everyone with an inspired performance that saw them win the opening encounter at Johannesburg by a margin of 123 runs. S Sreesanth, then a raw youngster with only six months behind him in Test cricket, was the hero of the Indian show with a match haul of 8/99. India, who chose to bat on winning the toss managed to put together a total of 249, thanks to an unbeaten knock of 51 by Ganguly. But surprises started unfolding when South Africa began their innings. Bowling a hostile opening spell, Sreesanth sent back Smith, Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis in his first four overs to send the hosts reeling at 21/4. He followed this with the wickets of Mark Boucher and Shaun Pollock, while Zaheer Khan snapped up Herschelle Gibbs and Ashwell Prince to reduce the hosts to 45/7. A mild recovery helped them to reach a final score of 84, thus giving India a first innings lead of 165 runs.
During their second knock Indian batting was held together by a determined innings of 73 by V V S Laxman. His 70-run partnership with Zaheer for the eighth wicket, helped the visitors reach a respectable total of 236. Sreesanth provided some mirth by launching into an impromptu jig after collaring fast bowler Andre Nel for a six over long off just as the innings was coming to a close. This shot and the dance that followed helped to send across the message that the new generation of Indian players were different from their predecessors and would not get intimidated by bouncers or sledging.
Set a daunting target of 402, South Africa folded up for 278, with Zaheer, Sreesanth and Anil Kumble picking up three wickets apiece. Amongst the South Africans, only Prince offered some resistance, striking a doughty 97, while Pollock threw his bat around to make a quickfire 40. Sreesanth was justifiably selected for the man-of-the-match award as it was his spell that swung the game in favour of India. The Indians, however, went on to lose the three-match series 1-2.
India recorded two more Test wins after that - one each during the tours of 2010-11 and 2018 - prior to the latest victory. The win in 2010-11 was at Durban by a margin of 87 runs and fashioned by the duo of Laxman and Sreesanth, with the former top scoring in both innings and the latter chipping in with crucial wickets. The delivery from Sreesanth that sent back Kallis, the top batsman of South Africa, was such a deadly one that it was included in the ‘Top 20 balls of the century’ by a popular cricket website. The visitors beat the Proteas by 63 runs in a low-scoring game at the Wanderers, Johannesburg, in 2018. This victory was shaped by the pace bowling quartet of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma, who shared the 20 wickets among them.
Wickets in South Africa are similar to those in Australia, in that they offer pace and bounce, which help the fast bowlers. It is to India’s advantage that we have presently a surfeit of fast bowlers, forcing even an experienced performer such as Ishant Sharma to sit out of the playing eleven. The victory at SuperSport Park has bolstered the confidence of the side and unless a serious setback happens, the visitors appear to be on their way to winning a Test series in South Africa for the first time.
Wishing all the readers a happy, healthy and prosperous 2022.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)