India will have to fend off a five-man South Africa pace attack on a typically fast Wanderers pitch to avoid a first series whitewash in six years.
India was bowled out for 187 on the first day of the third and final test on Wednesday, enhancing the chances of a 3-0 series defeat and a stern reality check for test cricket’s top-ranked team.
The biggest positive for India came right at the end of the opening day of the series-ender in Johannesburg, when Bhuvneshwar Kumar beat South Africa opener Aiden Markram to leave the home team 6-1 in reply, 181 runs behind.
That late strike by Kumar — utilizing the abundant pace, bounce and seam movement of the pitch — suggested India has a chance if its own bowlers can keep pace with South Africa’s quicks on a more than helpful surface.
India’s 187 was reliant on half-centuries by captain Virat Kohli (54) and Cheteshwar Pujara (50), with Pujara epitomizing the toil required by the batsmen at the Wanderers. He needed 54 balls and over an hour and 20 minutes to score his first run, and battled his way through 179 balls over more than four hours for his 50.
“This is one of the toughest pitches I have played on,” Pujara said, adding India’s first-innings total was “as good as 300” in his opinion.
Pujara received sarcastic applause from the crowd as he clipped a ball to the leg-side for his first run after an age of blocks, leaves, and misses. He responded to the long-awaited single, and the crowd’s jibe, with a broad grin.
Kohli, one of the most attack-minded batsmen in test cricket, needed 106 balls for his 54 and survived two dropped catches — when on 11 and 32 — and a series of near-misses. His partnership of 84 off 204 balls with Pujara, when India focused on survival more than anything else, lifted it from 13-2 in the ninth over. Only one other batting partnership was worth more than 30.
Kohli fell after a flashing edge to AB de Villiers at third slip off the bowling of Lungi Ngidi. De Villiers held onto this one after dropping Kohli on 32, but paid a price with a bruised finger on his right hand that kept him off the pitch during the last session. He should still be able to bat, though.
Pujara edged behind to wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock in the same over he reached his half-century, and South Africa’s fast bowlers ran through India’s middle and lower order to dismiss the No. 1 team for less than 200 for the third time in five innings this series.
The South Africans bowled as a pack, with Kagiso Rabada collecting 3-39 and Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Andile Phehlukwayo collecting two each.
“I think we did have a good day,” Phehlukwayo said. His optimism was tempered, though, by the prospect of South Africa having to bat last on such a testing surface. With that in mind, Kohli’s decision to bat first after winning the toss may pay off as India seek to save some pride from a contest where its nine-series winning run came to a grinding halt.
Recognizing the nature of the pitch, South Africa picked five quick bowlers and India picked four alongside seam-bowling allrounder Hardik Pandya. It was the first time India had gone into a test without a specialist spinner since 2012.
The opening stages of the test were predictable. India openers KL Rahul and Murali Vijay struggled against the pace and movement — with overcast conditions overhead exacerbating the challenge. Rahul lasted seven balls before an inside edge to ‘keeper de Kock. Vijay survived 32 balls for his 8 before also edging to de Kock.
The Pujara and Kohli partnership kept South Africa at bay temporarily.
But India’s middle order folder, with the recalled Ajinkya Rahane (9) falling before Pujara, and Parthiv Patel (2) and Pandya (0) ushered out in the space of an over after Pujara. Pujara’s dismissal sparked a run of six India wickets for 43 runs.
South Africa didn’t survive the final half-hour intact, though, with Markram edging Kumar behind to wicketkeeper Patel as he also failed to deal with the pace and bounce. Nightwatchman Rabada was sent out to help Dean Elgar (4 not out) see off the final 3 ½ overs.