Cape Town – HD Ackerman could not have put it more bluntly:
“This innings is the series.”
If the SuperSport pundit and former SA batsman is eventually
proved correct – and I am one observer in concurrence with him -- then the
Proteas have not made the best start to the key quest to make it a plump one,
The tourists stuttered to 11 for two at stumps on day one of
the third Test against India at Nagpur on Wednesday ... only adding weight,
really, to the theory that the hosts possibly over-achieved in compiling 215 in
their first innings following the sizeable benefit of winning a third toss in a
It was the highest total of the series, amazingly, which
also sums up just how hazardous the fast-crumbling, abrasive surfaces have been
for both batting line-ups, with this one no exception at all to the rule.
Few could quibble, either, with former national coach Eric
Simons’s assertion that “we’re watching the end of day five at the end of day
Using that formula, and in the highly unlikely event this
contest were to go a full five days anyway, the pitch would be playing like a
ridiculously spiteful day-niner by the finish.
In short, a cricketing apocalypse of sorts.
Already, every ball somehow seemed an event during the nine
overs – 54 balls not for the faint-hearted, you might say -- South Africa had
to negotiate before the close.
The optimistic view would be that the Proteas are really
only one wicket down (the labouring Stiaan van Zyl for a duck), given that
sacrificing the eccentric Imran Tahir as nightwatchman is no mortal setback.
Quite why this happy-go-lucky swisher has been nominated for
that particular role is debatable: am I the only one who traditionally expects
the nightwatchman to be a stoic Paul Harris or Ashley Giles type, inclined only
to get in line and try to keep the ball out with a straightish bat and firm
But there are rather more pressing needs to address, with
the red-letter one being just how South Africa -- their hopes fast fading of
defending a nine-year stint without away Test series defeat – can winkle out a
lead of 50 or more that would probably be the requirement to keep them firmly
in the contest.
There is widespread agreement, and it may even quietly
extend to the visiting dressing room, that anything but getting their noses at
least slightly in front on the first dig should spell disaster for the Proteas.
If some mental doubts may be swirling in certain, less
experienced South African players’ minds even at this infant stage of the Test
match, bear in mind also that India sport the advantage of having inflicted
some physical blows too.
One was not of their direct making, in truth, but they would
not have been unhappy nevertheless to see a hitherto purposeful Morne Morkel –
one of a rare, mere two SA frontline seamers picked – suddenly pull up with a
leg twinge of some sort after one ball of his 17th over, having already
accounted for three of the Indian top five.
That untimely development, after the big man had shown off
fine skills bowling fuller than his standard length, may well have played a
part in India’s important recovery from 125 for six to their eventual total 90
runs northward of it.
Then, although the television commentators didn’t make very much
of the incident, you have to wonder whether Dean Elgar, who grafted bravely for
an unbeaten seven off 30 deliveries, is going to be impeded in any manner as he
resumes battle on Thursday by the effects of a fearful direct crack on the left
forearm from Ishant Sharma on the hard-to-trust surface.
So when SuperSport’s studio panel all determinedly sung from
a “this game is still evenly-poised” song-sheet in their close-of-play
analysis, you just got the feeling it was through slightly gritted teeth.
Generally, the South African attack stuck to their first-day
task very well: apart from the afore-mentioned Morkel, Kagiso Rabada continued
to bowl with a level of gumption and discipline that belies his desperately
young age, whilst Simon Harmer picking up four scalps – he did drop a few balls
damagingly too short – meant he has advanced to a praiseworthy 19 scalps
(average 27) in the format only midway through his fifth Test for the country.
But now the focus shifts, with some intensity, to whether
the Proteas, still with their most proven run-scorers available to the cause,
can somehow collar India’s hungry trio of blood-sniffing spinners and tee up a
superior first-innings score.
If you had offered South Africa a guaranteed 265, for
instance, before their slightly stress-laden bedtime on Wednesday, would they
have banked it?
I’m not sure debate is even necessary on that one ...