Match evenly poised after late strikes from bowlers

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Indian cricketer celebrate after fall of a wicket on Saturday. Image Source: ICC

Internet Desk: On a pretty easy track to bat on South African batsmen dominated the first two sessions on Day 1 against India at Centurion today. It was looking like that the Proteas would take the game away from the visitors but a late strike by the Indian bowlers put the match in balance. Star South African batsman Hashim Amla became the top scorer at the Super Sport park as he went past legenadary Jacques Kallis (1,267 runs). At one stage the hosts were at 246 for the loss of 3 wickets but Indian bowlers restricted them at 269 for 6.

South Africa, 148 for 1 midway through the day and 246 for 3 into the final hour after winning the toss, slumped to 269 for 6 by stumps, with Faf du Plessis (24) and Keshav Maharaj (9) at the crease. Ravichandran Ashwin, who gave his team yeoman service with 3 for 90 in 31 overs, was the pick of the bowlers, but as vital was Hardik Pandya’s tremendous fielding that saw off Amla. Amla had started to thread the gaps with the fluency of old as the overs ticked down. After easing to a half-century in 99 balls, he looked good for three figures as he patiently picked off the bad balls that came his way. But an attempted quick single to short mid-wicket off Pandya’s bowling was his undoing. The bowler sprinted to the ball, and instead of targeting the stumps at the keeper’s end, he swivelled and threw them down at the bowler’s end with Amla short of his ground (246 for 4).

Two balls later, Ashwin had snaffled Quinton de Kock first ball, with the edge to slip smartly taken by Virat Kohli, the captain. There was still time for one more run-out off Pandya’s bowling, as Vernon Philander wandered down the pitch, despite du Plessis screaming ‘No’, after popping one up in the direction of square-leg. Maharaj, who clouted a couple of fours off Ashwin, ensured there wouldn’t be any more red faces as the Indian fielders finished the day with a spring in the step.

They had sprung a surprise at the toss, leaving out Bhuvneshwar Kumar, their leading wicket-taker in Cape Town, and the early exchanges showcased little of the pace and bounce that both captains had said they expected from the pitch. The colour of milky coffee after a week of baking in the hot sun, it afforded negligible lateral movement, but South Africa still made a cautious start.

Markram, the junior partner, was easily the more fluent, while Dean Elgar played, missed and edged in a nervy beginning. Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami took the new ball, and but for a wayward over from Shami that saw three fours and 13 runs, it was a fairly disciplined start from the bowlers. The change bowlers, Ishant Sharma and Hardik Pandya, also gave little away. By the time Ashwin started a marathon spell with a maiden, only 42 had come from the first 20 overs.

But with Bumrah then dishing out half-volleys and drifting on to the pads as well, another 13-run over gave the innings the shot of momentum it needed. India thought they had a wicket with Elgar on 19, and the score on 61, but their review was lost when replays showed that the sound had been bat brushing pad. With Pandya then straying in line and length, Markram, who played some gorgeous drives and flicks off the pads, eased to 50 from 81 balls.

Having lunched at 78 for 0, South Africa lost Elgar for 31 soon after. Never at ease against Ashwin, he tried to charge him, and failed to get to the pitch of the ball. The lofted drive lodged in Murali Vijay’s midriff. Amla, who had failed in both innings at Newlands, also started slowly, but Markram upped the ante as the sun beat down.

Shami briefly went off with a headache, and it looked like India would end the day with one as Amla started to find his timing and placement. Markram continued to play beautifully, especially off the back foot, and it was the tireless Ashwin that gave his team a lifeline. He went round the wicket to Markram, and the attempt at a late cut was neatly held by Parthiv Patel. Markram, whose bat had brushed the back pad as he played the stroke, ate up a review as well.

It was the second time he had been out in the 90s in five Tests, but his exit was followed by the day’s biggest cheer, for AB de Villiers. India’s position might have been even better had Patel managed to hold on to a difficult leg-side catch off Ishant. Amla was on 30 at the time, South Africa 164 for 2.

He and de Villiers added 51 either side of tea, in a partnership that looked ominous for India, but Ishant, who bowled with admirable control all day, got the big wicket as de Villiers (20) chopped on a delivery that came on much slower than he expected.

Having bowled one 17-over spell for 53, Ashwin bowled eight wicketless overs in a second spell and India kept things quiet before the 80-over mark. But Kohli didn’t take the new ball till the 87th over, and the frenetic final hour was all about India clawing their way back into the contest.

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