SA Diary: A soothing balm from Team India

Getting mugged of course is a traumatic experience. But a chat with the ever-pleasant Michael Holding and a comfortable Indian victory in the third Test makes our scribe’s Johannesburg stay a pleasant one.

Guiding force: A statute of the great man stands tall at the Nelson Mandela square in the heart of Sandton, the wealthiest square mile of Africa in Johannesburg.   -  AP

Johannesburg is a city of many shades. Being in the Highveld, it is a place of ups and downs. Cars delve deep into the road and emerge on top again. Jo’burg has its own charm, with its pubs, casinos, bistros and malls.

It is also called the city of wealth. Many of the biggest gold and diamond deals are struck here. In the mineral rich Witwatersrand hills, the city, according to many, sets the economic agenda for Africa.

Gold rush

The discovery of deposits of the yellow metal in a farm in 1880s resulted in a gold rush and many did strike it rich. Jo’burg has grown into a throbbing metropolis.

It is also a leafy city with imposing houses with large gates, boulevards, grounds, golf courses and stadiums. A sense of space is unmistakable here.

The largest and most populous city in South Africa is the also home to Soweto, the settlement of essentially black Africans, who were, during the dark days of apartheid, forced to live in segregated areas.

On the outskirts of Johannesburg, Soweto, after the end of apartheid in the early 90s, was incorporated into Jo’burg. Plenty of developmental activity has been continually going on in Soweto, that is also culturally and politically significant for South Africa.

Home of Mandela

The legendary freedom fighter Nelson Mandela lived in Soweto. And it was from here that he launched some of the biggest uprisings against apartheid.

Now, a glowing statue of the great man stands tall at the Nelson Mandela square in the heart of Sandton, the wealthiest square mile of Africa.

Meanwhile, the ride from Centurion to Jo’burg, the venue for the third Test, is pleasant. The afternoon sun is out and the resplendent flowers dance in the wind.

The series has been decided, but there is much at stake for both India and South Africa at the Wanderers. Virat Kohli’s boys had been competitive in the series and are keen to salvage pride in the third Test.

The South Africans, memories of a 3-0 rout on spinner-friendly tracks in India, 2015, fresh in mind, are keen on a clean sweep. The Indian practice session at the Wanderers is intense. Coach Ravi Shastri follows the nets closely, so does bowling coach B. Arun.

These are difficult times for the Indian team. The side is down 2-0 in the series and worse, skipper Virat Kohli has angered large sections of the media during his volatile press conference at Centurion.

Firmly in control

After the practise session, Shastri addresses the press with typical confidence, never dodging the tough questions. And he makes strong points without annoying the media. The coach’s performance is a master-class and there is much for Kohli to learn here.

The Bullring as Wanderers is called has its own identity and the atmosphere here can be pretty hostile for the opposition with the South African pacemen letting rip on bouncy tracks and the crowd baying for blood.

And there is plenty of grass on the surface for the Test. South African skipper Faf du Plessis is pleased. Kohli doesn’t appear too worried. After all, his pacemen, too, would have a chance.

The match gets underway; for the first time in its history, India goes into a Test with five pacemen and no spinner.

Dangerous city

Cricket on the first day is engrossing. A grassy pitch, seaming. bouncing deliveries, some brave batting, innovative methods and terrific bowling.

Then, Johannesburg hits me hard. I had just stepped out of the main gate at the Wanderers — not more than four to five yards — and was getting to an Uber I had called when a big man swiftly approached me from behind, caught hold of me, shook me violently, grabbed my mobile and some cash from my front shirt pocket and disappeared even as the security guards, close to the gate, watched.

I had just been mugged and experienced the other side of Johannesburg. This is a city of violent crimes where robbery, car-jacking at traffic signals and shoot-outs are common-place.

Jo’burg, for all its other charms, is among the most dangerous cities in the world. If you are a foreigner, you walk out on the street, at any time of the day, at your own peril.

On hearing the news, an old friend in South Africa, now based in Blomfontien said, “Welcome to Johannesburg!”

I had escaped being mugged on my earlier trips to Jo’burg, in 2006-07 and 2009 but this time I am a victim. The crime scene is actually becoming worse here.

The next morning started earlier, I had to rush to a mall in Rosebank, purchase a new phone and a sim card, then race to the Stadium before the start of the match.

A chat to remember

My day was made better by a conversation with ‘Whispering Death’ Michael Holding. He’s still so fit, graceful, regal, and has eyes that seem to look deep into you.

Holding talks about Sunil Gavaskar’s technique and how Sunny was the best Indian batsman he ever bowled at. The Jamaican remembers Mohinder Amarnath’s brave batting on the tour of the Caribbean in 1983, “He was fearless, hooked, pulled and drove us.”

The West Indian great is not a great believer in ICC rankings. “I believe in performance on the field, particularly away from home, in tough foreign conditions, not ICC rankings. On many occasions, they don’t tell you much,” he says.

The great fast bowler, whose run-up was so smooth that the non-striker and the umpire could hardly hear his footsteps before release, is concerned that the gulf between Kohli and the rest of the Indian line-up is too large.

Treacherous track

The match becomes interesting with the Indian pacemen hitting back. And the pitch, with its variable bounce comes under scrutiny. The Indian batsmen show courage, taking blows on the body as the ball climbs from back of a good length, but putting a price on their wicket.

Then, when the Proteas, chasing a stiff target considering the pitch, come in to bat, Dean Elgar is struck a blow on the helmet by a Jasprit Bumrah lifter that climbs from just short of a good length.

The umpires consult the match referee and play for the third day comes to a dramatic halt. The Indians are fuming, their batsmen had been struck on the body during the day but play went on. And now, when they have a chance for a rare away win, play is stopped after Elgar has taken one on the helmet.

Even as speculations abound on the future of the Test, a message comes from the Indian camp that the match will resume at normal time on day four.

Sweet success

Elgar and Hashim Amla offer stiff resistance but once Ishant Sharma provides the breakthrough, the Indian pacemen run through the South African line-up.

This is India’s second Test win at the Wanderers, and they have never lost a Test at the Bullring. For Kohli and his boys, it’s a nice way to finish a series they could have won had they played some key moments better in the first two matches.

But then, this is an evolving Indian side and it will learn.