To err is human, to rectify divine – India’s bowling turnaround from Centurion to Newlands

In 2018, Ravichandran Ashwin copped the blame for India’s 60-run loss against England in the penultimate Test at Southampton as the hosts took an unassailable 3-1 lead. His counterpart Moeen Ali bagged nine wickets on the atypically dry surface to be adjudged man of the match. Ashwin, on the other hand, only managed three.

Half-a-dozen years and a pandemic later, his underwhelming performance at the Rose Bowl lingers on in public memory, not only because it robbed India of a shot at an overseas series win but also since it was a hard pill to swallow that he squandered conditions favouring spin. There is ground for sympathy when players misfire in alien conditions, but ineptitude shown on fertile soil does not go down well with fans and pundits alike due to the reasonably high expectations.

Precisely why India’s bowling drew a lot of ire in the aftermath of the innings defeat at Centurion, a pace paradise. The visitors conceded 145 and 136 runs in two out of three consecutive sessions. Their change bowlers, Shardul Thakur and Prasidh Krishna, gave away 194 runs in 39 overs between them for just two wickets. Dean Elgar, an obdurate grafter, hit 19 boundaries en route to his 14th Test ton; his eventual 185 consigning India to their fifth successive Test defeat in SENA countries.

Their task was cut out heading into Cape Town, and the astonishing harvest of 13 wickets on the opening day itself establishes the fact that lessons have been learnt. First things first, India took the brave call of replacing Thakur with Mukesh Kumar. The merits of prioritizing discipline over batting depth came to the fore as the specialist quick nicked off Dean Elgar and Tony de Zorzi in the second innings. He came around the wicket to the left-handers, a line of attack India largely refrained from at Centurion in case of southpaws, to extract lethal seam movement which even put Aiden Markram in a spot of bother once India fetched an important 98-run lead.

The presence of Mukesh guarded against any let-up in intensity in the first dig as well when he was called upon after Mohammed Siraj returned a career-best 6/15 in his unchanged nine-over spell to lead South Africa’s rout. By not employing the leg-side trap against Elgar, India had missed the obvious in Centurion but wise teams don’t commit the same mistake twice so Siraj was armed with a leg-slip to begin with while a forward short leg materialized too as a leading edge ballooning over mid-wicket apprised India that he was, in fact, apprehensive flicking the ball owing to the close catcher behind square.

India tasted success implementing the rib-cage channel during the 2020-21 tour of Australia, with Siraj having Marnus Labuschagne caught at leg-gully and Jasprit Bumrah knocking over Smith round his legs. As Siraj curved the ball into Elgar from back of a length, the nervousness in his decision-making was apparent as the string of soft dismissals down the leg against Australia in January 2023 played on his mind.

The seeds of doubt sown, India were able to elicit an error from the Proteas captain as he tried punching through the vacant off-side with an angled bat only to ricochet the ball onto his stumps. He’d followed his opening partner to the pavilion, with Markram’s dismissal indicating that India had walked out with a plan to bowl tighter around the off-stump having served too much width at Centurion. All the South African wickets to fall hitherto in the New Year’s Test have come off deliveries that made the batters play, save for Kyle Verryene who salivated at the sight of a wide half-volley. Not only have Indian quicks been harder to leave, they have also correspondingly induced more edges thanks to the straighter lines.

Another box that Indian pacers ticked was hitting the deck harder. Floaty deliveries are a cardinal sin in this part of the world, as South Africa found out when Nandre Burger and Marco Jansen embarked on a half-volley spree. In 23.2 overs, South Africa folded for 55 while India had twice as many runs on the board with six wickets in hand. Kiss-the-surface bowlers aren’t able to utilize the cracks lying underneath the grass, which is dried out as the sun bakes the pitch to reveal the indentations. When the back is bent and wrist power exerted at the point of release, the ball sits into the surface, dramatically enhancing the scope of misbehaviour.

Mohammed Siraj’s 6/15 are the second-best recorded bowling figures before Lunch on the first day of a men’s Test.

Despite reducing South Africa to 34/6 after losing the toss, the Indian bowlers were urged to not let their guard down. ‘Halka nahi, halka nahi, poora finish karenge‘ (Don’t take it lightly, we’ve to see the job through) was a constant refrain from the fielders because runs come at a premium in South Africa, ‘’one of the most difficult places to bat’’ by Rohit’s own admission. Him terming India’s 245 in the first innings at Centurion ‘a pretty good score’ and the commentators claiming that India are well ahead in the game after securing a 100-odd lead goes to prove the enormity of the challenge.

“As a batter, you have to play the way Virat Kohli, Aiden Makram and Rohit Sharma applied themselves,” Elgar highlighted. “You obviously got to take a few risks out there. And hopefully you get a reward.”

Rohit’s ebullient 39 was a signifcant knock under the circumstances, for it upheld India’s momentum after South Africa nosedived to their lowest total post readmission in Tests while ensuring India averted damage versus the new ball, the most daunting proposition on a strip that saw 23 wickets tumble in a day. Only the Melbourne Test between Australia and England in 1902 was more soul-harrowing an experience for batters, and it’s worth noting it was an era of uncovered pitches.

“We have to give credit to the Indian bowlers,” South Africa’s batting consultant Ashwell Prince noted. “Siraj probably bowled one of the spells of his life. But I’ve played a lot of cricket on this ground and I’ve also been a coach here, and I’ve never seen the pitch that quick on day one. Usually it speeds up on day two. I don’t think, as a batter, you mind pace in the pitch. But then you need the bounce to be consistent. It was a little bit inconsistent with some keeping low and some bouncing steeply. You also don’t mind seam movement on day one, you expect it. But if you add that to inconsistent bounce it’s a different situation.”

Prepared by the new groundsman Braam Mong, the Newlands pitch certainly has wicked properties but as India’s bowling display in Centurion proved, sometimes you fail to strike when the iron is hot. They ‘’put the ball in the right areas,” according to Elgar. With 19 first-class matches under his belt at Newlands, including one earlier this season, his word carries weight.