Merciful rain gods and absorbing cricket

On the final day, it was mayhem, as South Africa was dismissed for 76, in just over two hours.

Axar Patel bolwed India 'A' to a remarkable win over South Africa 'A', in the second match   -  Ranjith Peralam

Karun Nair's heroics with the bat in the fourth innings of the first unofficial Test earned him a spot in the Indian Test squad.

August is not exactly the best time of the year to play cricket in Wayanad, a hilly district in northern Kerala, situated some 2000 feet above sea level. Chances of rain, especially of the lighter variety that lasts for hours, are high at this time of the year.

The officials at the Wayanad Cricket Association knew the risk involved when they accepted the offer to host the two unofficial four-day Test matches between India ‘A’ and South Africa ‘A’: it would be the biggest event for their new stadium and a washout would have dampened their chances of getting major matches in the future. Having decided to play the host, all they could do was to pray for the rains to stay away.

Their prayers were answered, mostly. Though most of the third day in the second game was washed out, it had no effect on the result, as India won the match by lunch on the final day. There were rains during the first game as well, but with light being good till 6 p. m., hardly any cricket was lost.

That match was drawn. But, the Indians had to draw it the hard way; they had to bat out four sessions against a South African attack that had a top quality off-spinner, Dane Piedt, who had bowled beautifully to take five wickets in the first innings.

But, a splendid 114 not out (192b, 260min, 18x4, 1x6) by Karun Nair saved the day for India. The brilliantly timed innings by the young Karnataka batsman earned him a call up to the Indian Test squad in Sri Lanka, following the injury to opener Murali Vijay. There were two other fine knocks in the India ‘A’ second innings — from opener Abhinav Mukund (65) and all-rounder Vijay Shankar (74 not out), who added 148 for the unbroken fifth-wicket with Karun.

The host’s first innings had folded for just 204, with only Shreyas Iyer (49), captain Ambati Rayudu (46) and Abhinav (38) making any significant contribution. Earlier, South Africa had made a mammoth 542, riding on hundreds from Omphile Ramela (112, 197b, 237min, 12x4, 3x6) and Quinton de Kock (113, 102b, 136min, 13x4, 3x6), who had made hundreds in both the List ‘A’ matches against India ‘A’ in Chennai before coming to Wayanad.

The South African batting crumbled in the second game on a turning track against a strong Indian spin attack. The visiting side was dismissed on the first day itself, for 260. Only the left-handed opener Stiaan van Zyl (96) could withstand the onslaught of the Indian spinners, among whom left-armer Axar Patel was the most successful, with figures of five for 92.

The wicket had eased on the second day and the Indian batsmen took full advantage of that. With half-centuries from opener Jiwanjyot Singh, Mukund, Rayudu and Axar, India gained a substantial first innings lead and was able to declare at the end of the third day’s play. On the final day, it was mayhem, as South Africa was dismissed for 76, in just over two hours. Axar led the Indian attack once again, and finished with sensational figures of four for none from six overs. He was named the Man-of-the-Match as well as the Man-of-the-Series.

He was one of the several gains for India from the series. Off-spinner Jayant Yadav, Vijay, Karun, Rayudu and seam bowler Shardul Thakur all impressed. The fielding and close catching of the Indians also caught the eye; and coach Rahul Dravid later revealed that the team had been working hard on that aspect of their game.

Despite the loss in the second Test, the South Africans too benefited from the series. The bowling of Piedt, on a comeback after a terrible shoulder injury a year ago, was their biggest gain. The bowler might be an integral part of the senior South Africa side, which will be touring India from October to December.

De Kock was able to get back to form in the longer format. The batting of Ramela, opener Reeza Hendricks and van Zyl and skipper and wicket-keeper Dane Vilas and the bowling of left-arm pacers Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Wayne Parnell and left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj would have also pleased the team management.

Both the teams were happy to play in Wayanad. The weather was cool and the surroundings green and lovely. There were fairly good crowds to watch the match, too — a rarity for first class games.

But, if the Wayanad Cricket Stadium at Krishnagiri wants to raise its profile as a venue, it has to come up with better wickets. The conditions in Wayanad are ideal for seam bowling and laying a wicket to suit that will help the ground to create its own identity.