(Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)
By Adam Ellis
There was an air of anxiety about the usual calm and confident Faf du Plessis late last year when he saw his bowlers battle a batsman’s pitch at Potchefstroom and Bloemfontein to beat Bangladesh.
“I was really disappointed with the conditions. They were not what we asked for,” the South Africa captain said after winning by 333 runs in Potchefstroom, adding that he wanted to see more grass on a pitch that lacked turn and was flat.
Comments made perhaps with India in mind as Virat Kohli and his side arrived in South Africa for a three-Test series shortly before Christmas.
The first match at Newlands made batsmen on both sides demonstrate footwork as errant as Judy Murray on Strictly Come Dancing at times, with Vernon Philander bowling fast leg-spin to tantalise the tourists with a spell of scrambled-seam bowling in front of his home crowd.
When India started their second innings needing 208 to win, Kohli looked to on his way to a much-needed middle order score by moving into the twenties with a string of boundaries.
The day would belong to Philander, however, who took a career-best 6-42 and stopped the India captain in his tracks on 28.
“Virat is a good player and an aggressive player,” Philander said. “The key thing is to obviously keep him quiet and to make sure you set him up for the other one.
“Initially it was for me to keep him quiet upfront, and I always knew I had the one coming back.”
“It was probably two-and-a-half overs of away-swingers and then the one back at him (Kohli). It was definitely a plan to keep him quiet, and also to drag him across to make sure that when you do bowl the other one, he is on the other side of the off-stump.
“We knew Virat was a big wicket to get, and getting him there and then I was just trying to motivate my boys.”
When Kohli was dismissed at 4-71, India would go on to struggle to the bowling of Philander supported by Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada, who was named the new no. 1 bowler in the ICC Test rankings.
Despite Ravi Ashwin providing some wag in the tail, India lost six wickets for just 64 runs as India were bowled all out for 135.
So was this a surprise result when people were expecting the serious drought endured by Cape Town over the past six months to result in a dry pitch?
“Day one was a lot faster than we thought it was going to be. I walked out there and the spikes went straight in, and I said to Faf, I think it’s going to be a touch on the slow side because of the moisture in the wicket,” Philander explained.
“But it surprised all of us and was a lot harder than what we thought it’s supposed to be. But it was a good cricket wicket.”
With 40 wickets taken and the Test match lasting until the evening session of day four, the prospect for the series to become a classic has its beginning. Now it is up to Centurions and the Wanderers to provide the middle and end.