“Cricket,” wrote the legendary CLR James in his seminal Beyond a Boundary, “is first and foremost a spectacle. It belongs with the theatre, ballet, opera and the dance.”
James’s list left out the corrida de torros, the blood-drenched Spanish sport of bullfighting where the picadors, the lancers, ride tormenting circles around the enraged bull, sticking their lances in, drawing blood, weakening the animal till the matador steps in to apply the coup de grace.
At the Rose Bowl in Southampton, it was more bullfight than ballet as the Indians, asked to bowl first, used their bowling trump cards Bumrah and Chahal to inflict deep wounds in the flank of the South African batting, egged on by a bloodthirsty crowd awash in blue.
You had to feel for the Proteas. They came to England with an enviable attack led by Rabada, Steyn and Ngidi. In the space of two games, they’ve lost the hamstrung Ngidi for a few matches, and Steyn for keeps with a dodgy shoulder. You can hardly blame them for not having the presence, the air of confidence, associated with teams of the past.
A characteristic of under-confident teams is indecision – and Faf du Plessis looks as indecisive as Hamlet. Miller is out one game and back the next; Markram is in for one game and out for the next; all-rounder Pretorius gets benched and the Proteas bring in Tabraiz Shamsi the left-arm chinaman bowler, It’s like there is a revolving door in the Proteas dressing room, and such chopping and changing doesn’t allow for a settled side and a confused captain.
You could argue that the Proteas lost this game when Faf called right and asked India to bowl first. The pitch was flat and hard with tufts of dried grass alternating with bald patches – but the thing about morning starts in England is that the sun doesn’t have enough time to burn off the sweat accumulated on the pitch overnight, under the covers.
Quick bowlers salivate at such conditions, and Faf – likely scarred by the first two games where his team conceded in excess of 300 and lost chasing – handed it to India; a gift gratefully accepted by Bumrah in a first spell of 5-0-13-2.
Amla, clearly uncertain on his return, could do little with a delivery that hit length, lifted, seamed through the channel and found the edge to Rohit Sharma at second slip. But Quinton de Kock let his side down in every way an opening batsman possibly could.
At the end of the first innings, Bumrah told the presenter what was fairly obvious to everyone: The ball swings and seams only or the first six overs or so, and then batting it gets easier. De Kock had a torrid time against Bumrah, unable to cope with the ball lifting off length and angling across him at speeds north of 145k. But he survived and then, off the 5th ball of the 6th over, launched an airy drive at one leaving him and edged straight to Virat Kohli, who had just brought himself in to third slip.
Faf and Rassie van der Duessen did what the situation called for – they dug deep, hung in there, kept the board ticking when they could, and put together a 54-run partnership that to an extent repaired the early damage. And then the 30-year-old Rassie, who debuted in this format only on January 19 this year and who, before this game, had five scores of 50 or more, lost the plot – an ill-judged reverse sweep off Yuzvendra Chahal saw him castled; Faf followed five balls later when Chahal straightened one past a batsman playing for turn to hit off.
Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, sometimes in tandem, at other times with a rotating cast of supporting characters, bossed the middle overs, nipping any sign of resistance whenever things looked likely to get out of hand. Two partnerships, of 46 between David Miller and Andile Phehlukwayo and of 66 between Chris Morris and Kagiso Rabada, were the sole saving graces, but the story of the Proteas innings is best understood in one stat: The top five batsmen scored 104; numbers six, seven and eight added 107.
The Indian bowlers performed to template: Bumrah is expected to strike hard in the opening overs, and he did; Chahal as the premier spinner is expected to boss the middle and he did, taking out four Proteas wickets for a cost of 51. Kuldeep took out JP Duminy before the southpaw could settle.
Hardik Pandya and Kuldeep Yadav combined to perform the fifth bowler’s duties efficiently, their ten combined overs costing 62 runs. The sole question mark hovers over Bhuvaneshwar Kumar who, despite his two wickets in the final over, was visibly undercooked in terms of both pace and movement.
India opened its innings against a fired up Rabada, and found him too hot to handle. You felt so sorry, for Dhawan particularly, that you wanted to give him a hug. In the first over, a bouncer at top pace took him by surprise; the inadvertent fend saw the ball take the handle and loop over Duminy at point. A yorker so quick it left a vapor trail in its wake saw Dhawan jab down on it at the last instant – and look down to see his bat broken in two places.
The kitchen proved too hot for the southpaw, who soon after nicked off in typical fashion – a tentative poke at a Rabada express delivery that slanted across him on length.
Rabada – who in his first spell was the textbook definition of aggressive fast bowling -- was taken off after five overs and on balance, you had to say that a captain defending a small score would have let the young quick have a couple more, particularly given how uncomfortable both Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli were against him.
Kohli, who never looked settled in his brief stay (18 off 34 balls), nicked off to Phehklukwayo, falling to a plan teams will use regularly against him: back of length, in the channel, lifting and seaming away late to beat the drive he plays with bat well away from his body.
The difference between the two teams was Rohit Sharma. Against Rabada, an edged pull looped over point; against Phehlukwayo he was reprieved on an LBW review which turned out to be umpire’s call; against Morris one of his edges dropped heart-stoppingly short of Imran Tahir at second slip.
But what Rohit did, which none of the frontline Proteas managed, was to show the patience and composure to ride out of the rough. His 50 came in the 23rd over, off 70 balls. It contained four fours and two sixes – which is to say, he scored 28 of his runs off just six balls, and the other 64 produced just 22 runs. Even as deep into the innings as the 22nd and 24th over, when he could be expected to be well set, he gritted out a searching examination by Chris Morris.
The tall fast bowler was emblematic of how hard the Proteas fought to defend the seemingly indefensible. When he completed two back to back maidens (the 22nd and 24th overs) in his second spell, he had an analysis of 6-3-10-0 thanks to an almost McGrath like demonstration of line and length at pace. (Trivia alert: In his 34 ODIs before this game, Morris had bowled only a total of five maidens.)
The other key difference between the two sides was the way they handled spin. South Africa played with leaden feet, unable to pick either Chahal or Yadav out of the hand; the Indians, particularly during the KL Rahul-Rohit Sharma association, read Tabraiz Shamsi and Imran Tahir easily out of the hand and worked the gaps in the big ground perfectly, forcing the flustered bowlers into error.
These differences combined in eye-opening fashion, when you look at the score progress. After ten overs, SA were 34/2 and India, 34/1. After 20, SA 80/4 versus India 78/2; after 30, SA 125/5 and India, 129/2. Dead even, except that the Proteas top five threw their wickets away while India’s batsmen gritted it out. India only began pulling ahead in the overs 31-40, where they got to 171/3 against the 161/7 the Proteas made.
A stat that plays to the one above: in the 120 deliveries they bowled between them, Chahal and Kuldeep bowled 60 dot balls, and gave away five fours and one six while taking five wickets through the middle overs. Against that, their counterparts Tahir and Shamsi bowled 45 dot balls out of 114 deliveries combined, gave away 8 fours and a six, and failed to get a single wicket – all of which put even more pressure on an already depleted pace attack.
Rohit got to his 100 off 128, the slowest of his 22 ODI centuries – an innings of two halves, a patchy but gritty first half and a graceful display in the second half. Dhoni rode his luck for a patchy 34 off 45 before one swipe too many resulted in a deserved caught and bowled for Morris. And India, shepherded by Rohit, got to its target with six wickets, and 15 balls, to spare.
South Africa’s day was encapsulated in one moment: Rabada, coming back in the 44th over with the ask 35 off 42 balls, defeated a well-set Rohit’s pull with a fast, accurate bouncer. The skier went straight up in the air and straight down to cover. David Miller, supposedly the best of the Proteas fielders, didn’t have to move an inch – and he still managed to drop it.
You would normally feel sorry for a proud team like the Proteas, for all the troubles it has had thus far in this Cup – only, you can’t help feeling that their unprecedented three successive failures are almost entirely their own fault. You don’t let off a top batsman like Rohit Sharma twice, when defending a small total, and not pay for it. As for India, its batting performance was not the most convincing against quality pace, but it has a win under its belt and that is what it needed out of a cold start – that, and the knowledge that its bowling unit has all bases covered.