“I think it’s pretty even-stevens. Us playing at home, obviously, gives us a little bit of an upper hand,” said the South Africa skipper Dean Elgar ahead of the first Test in Centurion.
All those claims were bashed by a rampant Indian team that registered a 113-run win to go 1-0 up in the series. This was India’s fourth Test win outside Asia in 2021. Inarguably, this was also the easiest of the four wins. There were times when South Africa were knocking on the door but never really got their foot in, even when India’s batting collapse provided a chance. On Criclytics Match Reel, 35 percent was the best chance the hosts ever had of a win.
The gulf of quality between the two sides was crystal clear. It has never been this wide with India the favorites to win their first series in South Africa if they were not before the first Test. The onus is on the hosts to punch above their weight now.
Passing Stat: India have never lost a Test at Johannesburg’s New Wanderers Stadium, playing three draws and winning twice.
The batting needs to step up
The biggest reason why South Africa never seemed in the contest despite spells of spirited fast-bowling was their feeble batting. They were bowled out for 197 and 191 in Centurion, only the third occasion of them being bundled under 200 twice in a home Test. At 48.5, they had the worst balls-per-wicket ratio for a Test team in 2021.
In 2018, they had the experience of AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis doing just enough in a low-scoring series to keep them afloat. The absence of the same has hurt them and was intensely felt in Centurion. The void is now bigger with Quinton de Kock’s sudden retirement from Test cricket.
While de Kock was not available for the last two Tests of this series anyways, his announcement is a hammer blow in a longer term. It takes away a quality wicketkeeper. It takes away the experience of 54 Tests. It takes away the only counter-attacking batter in their line-up.
In this series, South Africa now have only three players with the experience of scoring a Test hundred. Assuming Kyle Verreynne will replace him, South Africa’s top six now have an aggregate of 9,186 Test runs. India’s captain (Virat Kohli) and vice-captain (KL Rahul) have over 10,000 runs in between them.
Dean Elgar and Temba Bavuma were the only ones to score fifties against the imperious India attack. At 10.3, Bavuma had the lowest false-shot percentage among all his teammates and only higher than Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane on both sides. He was left stranded in the second innings. This gives rise to the question if he should bat further up in the order, swapping position with either of Keegan Petersen or van der Dussen. There is not much South Africa can change in their batting owing to lack of options.
A possible change in bowling personnel
Duanne Olivier was benched in Centurion for precautionary reasons. Given South Africa picked 17 off the 20 wickets from good and back of a length, both of which comes naturally to Olivier, his inclusion in the XI for the second Test must be a no-brainer. But who does he replace? Each one of Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Marco Jansen were among wickets. Wiaan Mulder extends batting resources and troubled Rahul on Day 1.
This brings Keshav Maharaj in limelight for a number of reasons. He failed to fulfill his role as a defensive bowler in the first Test. His economy of 3.2 runs per over in the first innings was higher than that of three other bowlers. He didn’t bowl in the second innings. India also average in excess of 150 against left-arm orthodox spin outside Asia since 2018. In addition, 92.9 percent of Test wickets at the New Wanderers have been picked by pacers. There are multiple indications suggesting why Maharaj should be replaced. The question is, will South Africa take the option?
Eyes on the senior pros
India have a peculiar problem which has been overshadowed by their performing openers and the bowling attack.
Their middle-order, constituting their senior pros - Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli and Rahane - are not fulfilling their potential. None of them managed a Test hundred between them in 2021. While the sword over Pujara and Rahane is now a broken record, Kohli’s incessant run of getting caught behind the wickets has become a thorn for India. In Centurion, he was twice out driving way outside the off stump.
In 2021, he was caught seven times by the wicketkeeper and four times in the slips.
“[In 2018] There was not that hardness about his hands going towards the ball. He was waiting for it to come towards him. But now, for the last two years, this has creeped into his game again. His dismissals in Centurion throws questions towards his focus points,” said the former South Africa cricketer, JP Duminy in an exclusive chat.
Duminy attributed those dismissals to a sudden lapse of concentration, identifying mental fatigue as a potential catalyst. Kohli false-shot percentage of only 8.7 in Centurion supports Duminy’s theory.
The under par returns from the middle-order has been the only chink in India’s armour throughout a highly successful 2021. In this period, India’s openers have averaged 42.2 runs per wicket while the middle-order - number three, four and five - have only 29 runs per dismissals. The difference underlines the story here: a defining score from the middle-order is long due.
South Africa: Dean Elgar (c), Aiden Markram, Keegan Petersen, Rassie van der Dussen, Temba Bavuma, Kyle Verreynne, Wiaan Mulder, Marco Jansen, Kagiso Rabada, Keshav Maharaj/Duanne Olivier, Lungi Ngidi
India: KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant (wk), Ravichandran Ashwin, Shardul Thakur, Mohammad Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Siraj