Diary: Tormenting time for touring India

South African pace spearhead Dale Steyn is ruled out for the rest of the India series. His absence, however, comes as little comfort for Virat Kohli and his boys.

Telling blows: Vernon Philander ambushed the Indian batting with laser-guided precision and seam movement in Cape Town.   -  AFP

Seldom has the sphere done so much for the pacemen at Newlands. The seamers have a ball and the wickets tumble.

The crowd relishes this battle of cricketing life and death even as the batsmen appear and disappear. But then, Hardik Pandya, as colourful as they come, infuses life into the Indian innings. He is lucky too but then this is an attribute that often favours the brave.

There is a sad piece of news as the second day wears on. Dale Steyn, bowling with rhythm, pace and control, walks out of the arena in pain. In the evening, after the dramatic day’s play, comes the news. The great Steyn is out of the series. His comeback had ended as soon as it started.

There is a temporary respite for the men wielding the willow. Rain washes out day three. The sight of the enchanting Table Mountain from the Stadium is breath-taking but those at the ground endure a pretty frustrating time.

Just when the downpour abates, the ground-staff remove the covers and the super-soppers start sucking up the water, the showers commence again. The most engaging piece of action comes late in the afternoon when two fans rush into the ground, chased by the security staff, who, to the amusement of many, slip on the slippery turf even as the ‘culprits’ get away.

The Chennai connection

There is time to catch up with Kepler Wessels, former South African captain. The man was as tough as they come in his playing days as a determined left-handed top-order batsman who put a price on his wicket.

Wessels had the unique distinction of turning out for both Australia and then South Africa when it returned to the cricketing fold after the torrid days of apartheid. “Steyn will be back,” he says. Wessels also makes eager enquiries about Chennai. He is rather familiar with the city for he was the coach of the Chennai Super Kings in the first year of the IPL.

Sun shines but misery for India

Sunshine returns to Cape Town and the contest resumes. The ball flies around again and for the batsmen it must have seemed a game of Russian Roulette — If this ball doesn’t get you, the next one could.

Fresh blood: Making his debut, Lungi Ngidi, a strong barrel-chested fast bowler, lives a dream, bowling South Africa to victory on the fifth day of the Centurion Test.   -  AFP

 

At lunch of day four, the mood in the Indian dressing room is upbeat. The side is chasing just over 200 for a win. There is talk of India romping home with five wickets to spare.

Instead, Vernon Philander ambushes the Indian batting with laser-guided precision and seam movement. It is South Africa that races away to victory.

Soul of Africa

Meanwhile, Cape Town continues to rock. Tourists flock to the exotic street markets, mirroring Africa of old, in the city centre. The ride up the Table Mountain on the cable car is rewarding. And the view from the top is spectacular.

Cape Town is one of those rare cities that have both, a throbbing beach and imposing mountains, close to each other. Camps Bay, facing the Atlantic Ocean, is a vibrant place with restaurants, bistros and shops. A group of local children keep the onlookers entertained with rhythmic music and dance giving us a glimpse of the soul of Africa.

In the evening, the cars and the city buses go up the Signal Hill from where watching the sunset can soothe your senses.

Waking up for cricket

The cricketing temperatures, though, rise as the caravan moves to Centurion, the venue for the second Test.

The SuperSport Park, the venue for the match, has a sense of space about it with large grass banks on both sides, an open press box, and hospitality boxes that are actually well spread out independent buildings.

Centurion itself is a rather sleepy town and a Test match is an occasion that brings people together.

As the match gets nearer, speculations do the rounds about the Indian XI. Will vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane regain his place or will the struggling Rohit Sharma keep his?

Talks revolve around the selection of Bhuvneshwar Kumar as well with Ishant Sharma certain to return. A path opens up for Parthiv Patel as well with Wriddhiman Saha injuring his hamstring.

The pitch comes under scrutiny too. Normally the surface at Centurion has a healthy covering of grass and offers pace and bounce to the seamers but this track here, with only patches of dry grass, is rather brownish in colour.

The South Africans are surprised, the Indians are not complaining and the curator says the heatwave in these parts ahead of the Test burnt up the grass. It’s a rather bizarre explanation.

The Test gets under way on a very sub-continental Centurion pitch, Rahane still finds himself left in the cold and Bhuvneshwar, much to the chagrin of many is dropped.

Logic out of the window

Former South Africa paceman Fanie de Villiers is certainly not happy at the treatment meted out to Bhuvneshwar. “He is the real deal, he should play for you all the time,” he weighs in.

During his time, de Villiers, combining with the fast and furious Allan Donald, tormented several batting line-ups.

Out in the middle, it is the other de Villiers, the gifted AB, who conjures a critical innings under pressure in the South African second innings on a surface of uneven bounce.

Dream debut

For the host Lungi Ngidi, a strong barrel-chested fast bowler, lives a dream, bowling South Africa to victory on the fifth day. Once again, the Indian batsmen stumble on the chase.

South Africa takes a winning 2-0 lead in the three-Test Freedom series, nailing the Test on a surface they should have been struggling on.

Skipper Virat Kohli, losing the first Test series of his captaincy, is fuming. He had scored a high quality 153 in the first innings but received little support.

And when he is asked some tough questions at the press conference, he explodes. Kohli loses his temper, snaps back at the journalists and leaves an angry man.

And to make matters worse, South African captain Faf du Plessis threatens a 3-0 sweep in the third Test at the Wanderers. Away from the sub-continent, it’s a different ball game for India.