To combat the cold at the Optus Stadium in Perth, Dinesh Karthik walked out to bat snug in a jumper while Temba Bavuma wore a full-sleeved jersey underneath his polo. A blustery wind blowing across the ground made hooded sweatshirts mandatory for those cheering from the dugout. Harsha Bhogle even asked Rohit Sharma if India's slack fielding was down to the chilly weather. The temperature dropped to 10° celsius, although it wasn't spine-chilling by any means. For, that superlative was reserved for South Africa's pace bowling display.
The zip and extra bounce in the surface allows tall, hit-the-deck quicks to flourish, and the Proteas wisely benched Tabraiz Shamsi to unleash a four-pronged pace attack. Thunderbolts crashing into the knee roll and thigh pad served as a harbinger of India's ineptness in dealing with the conditions, notwithstanding a long preparatory camp at this very venue specifically arranged to give the players ample time to acclimatise.
Steep bounce off the hard lengths defeated the judgement of the top order as Lungi Ngidi claimed wickets with the swiftness and urgency of an ambulance driver. Bavuma sensed blood, frontloaded the speedsters and delayed the introduction of Keshav Maharaj, the lone spinner, till the halfway mark. By the time Suryakumar Yadav faced his seventh ball, India had lost half their side. Imagine being tasked with the repair job on a zesty pitch in alien environs against a world-class pace battery spitting venom. Now add World Cup pressure to the mix. Men of lesser resolve would've buckled under the strain, but the maverick that is Suryakumar thrived through adversity.
Having sublime wrists that can convert a good ball into a boundary helped. Anrich Nortje was flicked for a six over backward square leg, his express pace taking the ball twenty rows deep. Maharaj erred in line and length first up as Suryakumar bisected point and short third with a square cut dripping in finesse. Given the speed merchants were ruling the roost, it was imperative for India to target the slow left-arm and score as many runs off him as possible, even if that meant taking a few risks to manufacture shots, like Suryakumar did when he danced down the track to deal a lusty blow into the sightscreen.
Ngidi returned to bowl his final over with sterling figures of 17/4 only to be hoisted for a six first ball. The length was predictable considering South Africa had banged it in from the outset – merely 13% of their deliveries were fuller than 5m, the lowest percentage for any team in a completed innings this World Cup – but to squirm inside the line of the ball and execute the pick-up over fine leg requires skill, which Suryakumar possesses in abundance, of course.
The innovative streak in his strokeplay might stand out but at the heart of his 360° game is a robust technique. Having explored the inverted V to fetch a maximum off Ngidi, Suryakumar played a gorgeous drive two balls later in the traditional V. Going from the breathtakingly audacious to the conventionally correct is as easy for him as toggling tabs in Google Chrome.
India managed 68/3 in overs 7-15 thanks to Suryakumar's 12th 50+ score in 35 T20I innings. His knack of picking out the vacant spaces in the field was best exemplified by the lofted sweep off Maharaj and the forehand thump to Kagiso Rabada, whose short and wide teaser was dragged down the ground in a bid to access the short straight boundaries.
While India certainly rued the implosion upfront, a competitive total was well within their reach had Suryakumar kicked on for a little longer and Dinesh Karthik discharged his duties as a finisher. Managing a total of 133 from a precarious juncture of 49/5 seemed like a good effort, but in the larger scheme of things it was woefully inadequate.
Backing their strength to move the ball laterally, India bowled 25cms fuller than South Africa and found 1.65° of swing, thrice as much as their opponents who relied on their searing velocity and carry off the deck. Arshdeep Singh's double whammy put India in the ascendancy as South Africa dawdled to 40/3 in 10 overs, but Aiden Markram and David Miller added 76 for the fourth wicket, a partnership that an error-strewn fielding unit let blossom.
Nonetheless, India would be proud of themselves for taking the low-scoring affair deep, so much so that South Africa needed 25 from 18 balls. Gone are the days when Miller shuddered at the sight of spin, but tweakers faring poorly in the final over in this year's tournament nudged Rohit into giving Ashwin the 18th. It was a pivotal roll of the dice as India had an over each from Mohammad Shami and Bhuvneshwar Kumar in the bank. 13 came off the over as Ashwin finished with figures of 1/43 from his full quota, at an economy rate of 10.75. He conceded four sixes and proved to be the most expensive bowler on either side, although his returns might've looked a bit prettier had Virat Kohli not reprieved Markram off his bowling on 35.
"We expected them to take on Keshav. I'm sure they expected us to take on Ashwin as well, just because of the nature of the wicket, because the seamers were so difficult to get away,'' Markram said. "It almost got to a stage where we had to target someone because they bowled so well initially in the first ten overs up until the drinks break.''
Markram raised his 9th T20I fifty but couldn't see his team home as India, for once, took an opportunity that presented itself. Suryakumar settled underneath the skier, as calm and composed as he was when hunting the hunter with the bat.