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Cricket | India tour of South Africa 2017/18

Hashim Amla © Reuters

Proteas gift advantage to India

On a pitch that baffled both teams in equal measure, India fought hard to pick up vital wickets at key moments, keeping themselves in the game and denying South Africa the opportunity to run away with the game on Saturday.

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Ravi Ashwin was the star for India on a day when both Aiden Markram and Hashim Amla were dismissed with centuries there for the taking. South Africa had 269 on the board, but India had picked up six crucial wickets and were into the tail.

Coming into the game at Centurion, it was widely expected that the pitch at SuperSport Park would be hard, affording the fast bowlers both bounce and carry.

Early in the piece, however, it became clear that this was not the case, at least on the first day. The pitch, described by experts as being tacky in the sense that it had a bit of moisture on it, had tennis ball bounce in the first session, and even spin for Ashwin.

Just over four years ago, Ashwin endured one of the worst episodes of his career when he went wicketless against South Africa and was dropped for the following test.

In 2013/14, at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg, some 50km away, Ashwin suffered a major career setback.

India set South Africa 458 to win with more than a day to bowl them out. Not only did they fail to do that, but the Proteas got within eight runs of what would have been a world record chase.


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"It was a reality check in terms of not being able to win a test match for the country on day five when all things were set up for a spinner," said Ashwin, who went wicketless in 36 overs that day.

"It hit on my professional pride and from then on I knew I had to work on certain things."

Ashwin was dropped for the next match, which India lost, and it took a while for the selectors to trust him in tests outside India.

"I worked on making my action a lot more repeatable, I worked on my wrist action at the point of release," the 31-year-old added.

"I ironed out a few things, used my wrist a lot more when I delivered the ball, used my palm when I bowled the floater."

The first session was all South Africa. Faf du Plessis, who won the toss yet again, had no hesitation in batting first and the openers, Dean Elgar, who came in for some heavy-duty sledging from the Indians, and Aiden Markram, crisp and controlled, went through to lunch without being separated.

Conditions for batting were not especially easy, with some balls sticking in the pitch and others coming through quicker. Even a player of De Villiers’ natural ability struggled to time the ball and score quickly.


This made Markram’s changeless effort all that more special. Hitting cleanly through the line, using the "V" between midwicket and cover, Markram was handsome in his driving. Standing tall at the crease, he waited for the leg-stump half-volley, whipping the ball through the on side with control.

When the bowlers overcompensated and went short and wide, the crack of the bat hitting the ball through cover boomed around the ground.

Dean Elgar was less fluent, but no less effective, playing and missing occasionally, but refusing to give his wicket away. Mohammad Shami, of whom so much was expected in the lead-up to this tour, was poor once more, never finding the right line or length to bowl.

As the openers amassed runs, India changed their tactics, bowling well wide of the batsmen in an attempt to dry up the runs. This worked, to the extent that the runs did not come in a barrage at what is traditionally a fast-scoring ground, but it also reduced the bowlers’ chances of breaking the opening partnership.

It wasn’t until 85 runs were on the board that India got their first breakthrough, Elgar (31) jumping down the pitch and hitting uppishly to silly point. The ball lodged in Murali Vijay’s midriff and to his credit he managed to wrap a hand around it and keep it in his position.

Markram, who had struck 15 boundaries in his utterly impressive innings, was also done in by Ashwin, a ball sliding across the right-hand bat taking the edge even as bat struck pad. The umpire on the field ruled in favour of the bowling team, and even the review could not save Markram, who trudged off the field six runs short of a hundred.

In addition to his two centuries, he has now been out twice in the nineties. "It was a bit of a nothing shot, I am still not over it," Markram admitted.

There was some consolation when Indian captain Virat Kohli ran across to congratulate South Africa's rising star.

"He just said 'well played' and that I was unlucky to get out. It was a great gesture and it did mean a lot," Markram said.


India were also guilty of helping South Africa along, failing to grab some of the chances that came their way. The first dropped catch was supplied by Dean Elgar, hooking Jasprit Bumrah to the deep. Vijay at deep fine-leg completely misjudged the catch, running forward, then back and leaping into the air trying to catch the ball one-handed.

Amla offered one half chance early in his innings, flicking wide of Hardik Pandya at short midwicket. Pandya dived full length and managed to get a hand to it, but the ball did not stick. Had the catch been taken it would have been one for the ages, but that’s exactly the sort of thing you need when the wicket is offering so little.

The second chance Amla gave was much more straightforward strangled down the leg side by Ishant Sharma. The ball went cleanly off bat, missing the thigh pad, but Parthiv Patel, keeping wickets in place of Wriddhiman Saha, was slow to react, heavy on his feet, and not nearly agile enough to pouch the ball.

But, if India were in generous mood, so were South Africa. AB de Villiers dragged a ball from Ishant back onto his stumps, Amla (82) hesitated in responding to a call from Du Plessis and was brilliantly run out by Pandya, who fielded in his follow-through and nailed the stumps with a strong throw.

Vernon Philander then offered himself up on a plate, running lazily down the pitch with Du Plessis screaming 'no', and being comfortably run out.

The bright spot for South Africa was that Du Plessis was still at the crease, 24 to his name, as they ended the day on 269 for six.

"There was some extraordinary work by Hardik and a bit of luck for us," said Ashwin. "It could be a very good batting day tomorrow."

SOUTH AFRICA: Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis (capt), Quinton de Kock (wk), Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Lungisani Ngidi, Morne Morkel

INDIA: Murali Vijay, Lokesh Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (capt), Rohit Sharma, Parthiv Patel (wk), Hardik Pandya, Ravichandran Ashwin, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma


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