In the end, defeat descended swiftly on India. One extended session is barely enough to get 122 runs, definitely not when the ball is zipping around after rain lashed the Wanderers for two sessions. Some balls spit off the crack, some stayed low while some jagged back sharply after landing. Several angles were tried—over the wicket, around the wicket, closer to the stumps, some wider. South Africa’s defence was far from solid. But when the batters also start putting their bodies on the line, it starts to mess with the bowlers’ minds. Dean Elgar did that to India.
He may have missed out a fabulous hundred but South Africa have restored the balance of this series by carving a brilliant victory after losing ground at Centurion. Consecutive partnerships of 82 and 68 made this win happen but South Africa also ticked several boxes before this—getting a slender first innings lead, dismissing India’s openers early in the second innings and Kagiso Rabada restricting them to a gettable total on Day 3.
“If I have to be really harsh, after winning the toss we could have put 60-70 runs more,” said KL Rahul, standing in for Virat Kohli who missed this Test because of upper back spasm.
Still, chasing 240 is never easy on any pitch. And this one was working in favour of seamers. The only reason South Africa stayed on top of their second-highest successful chase at home since readmission—and also their first win against India at the venue—because their best batters never took a step back.
Every loose ball was accounted for, not to mention the edges flying through gaping holes in the slip cordon because India thought stopping runs and not taking wickets could somehow prevent the inevitable. With every boundary, every single and every extra, South Africa became bolder as India quickly slid from being a confident world-beating fast bowling attack to a bundle of nerves.
Frustration turned into anger, lengths started wavering and overzealous bouncers became wides, some of them even evading Rishabh Pant’s outstretched gloves to go for boundaries. There was nothing wrong with the conditions. India had finally met their match in Elgar, Rassie van der Dussen and Temba Bavuma. At the front and centre of this stupendous victory was the resilience of Elgar, standing like a rock, weathering body blows, surviving bouncers and probing lines.
“I don’t know what’s the right or wrong way in winning a cricket match, but it’s all about doing the basics right,” said Elgar after the seven-wicket win. “I am yet to see the bruises (the blows he received), but it’s a big motivation to go and play for your country. Whatever I’m going through, it’s important to see the bigger picture and the bigger picture is to win games for your country. When you perform like this over the period of four days, it does make you forget the pain in doing so.”
Elgar also didn’t forget to praise van der Dussen. “We have struggled to find the right batting line-up, find the people for the right roles, entrust the people into their roles and to bat in such a way in not so easy conditions pleases you a lot. The way he (Rassie van der Dussen) batted, he will go a long way in his career.”
Could India have responded better? Probably. Shardul Thakur dropping Bavuma off his own bowling would go down as a reprieve despite the tall odds of it being caught. But India’s problems ran deeper. The tactic was questionable, the field placements even more debatable. Too often the lengths short when it was quite clear neither Elgar nor van der Dussen were going to fall for that provocation. Jasprit Bumrah erred. So did Mohammad Shami and Mohammed Siraj. To top it all, Siraj seemed too overwhelmed by the demands of the situation right from the first ball he bowled.
The day started with Bumrah’s delivery seaming sharply past van der Dussen’s outside edge. Ravichandran Ashwin started from the other end but it became quickly clear Elgar was more than eager to play him off his pads. When Elgar hit Ashwin past mid-on to bring up his fifty with a boundary, South Africa were already hitting the right notes. But the real shift of balance came through a jabbed push towards cover with van der Dussen calling for two that reduced the target to 99 runs.
India hit the panic button right after that, inexplicably taking men out of catching positions. Van der Dussen finally edged Shami to Cheteshwar Pujara at first slip but Bavuma provided the calm touch by hitting crisp drives and presenting the full face of his bat. By then, Bumrah and Shami were coming off too straight to Elgar from round the wicket, allowing him to easily tuck those balls towards midwicket and take easy singles. For the first time in the series, Elgar was scoring so briskly in the morning session. India should have got a cue from that and returned to over the wicket to Elgar since that was how he was dismissed in both innings at Centurion. There were times Elgar rode his luck and flashed hard over the slip cordon. There were times he was squared and beaten comprehensively. But India couldn’t dislodge him. It was old-school batting at its best, not pretty but definitely effective.