The Centurion Conundrum

PPC Newlands could go down in history as the site of the humbling of Virat and his motley crew and the spot where first nail of the Indian crucifixion was hammered in. It also could potentially become the scene where the foundation was laid for the construction of the Kohli era.

The Captain and the Coach

Virat’s pride is bruised if not battered both as a batsman and a captain, Shastri’s swagger is AWOL, the big man is smarting and the Board of Control for cricket in India is taking incoming fire from all quarters for its shoddy planning in the lead up to the test series.

All those lofty words and proclamations that were uttered in that press conference by an ebullient Shastri and a Virat very much in the middle of a honeymoon hangover ring woefully hollow now. All of Virat’s heroics both as a batter and as the leader of a side that had won 9 straight series (in hallowed company of the great ‘Punter’) prior to this drubbing seem to count for precious little now. The trolls and the haters are out again in full force to unload their fire, fury and filth on Anushka who was also present in the stands overlooking the picturesque table top mountain alongside all the other WAGs (Wives and Girlfriends).

The captain might have succumbed yet again to a combination of pace, swing and bounce but he is the kind of bloke who is sure to draw every last ounce of confidence from his performance in the second inning. I can already hear his war cries and smell the war paint!  But what about his men?

The Bouncer Bunny

Dhawan capitulated to his old nemesis, the rib-roaster on both occasions. The second failure not a forced error precipitated by a steep, sharp projectile screaming in toward his arm pit but rather an unforced error conceded in a blundering and desperate attempt to wipe his forehead clean of the stigma of a ‘bouncer bunny’. Pitches like these and a technique like Dhawan’s are like oil and water. They will not mix and therefore should not be mixed!

The Style Anna

Shikhar’s opening partner, the stylish Murali Vijay did not fare much better. The stifling line and lengths of the Proteas (especially ‘Big Vern’) meant it was only a matter of time before Vijay hung his bat out to dry and the ever so reliable South African slip cordon with their cavernous mitts did the rest. Sunny Gavaskar kept extolling the ‘style Anna’s’ virtue of being both able (technique) and willing (temperament) to leave the ball outside his off stump and attriting the bowlers into bowling to his strengths. Alas! He obviously did not leave enough balls alone. The total number of balls he faced in both innings did not cumulatively reach a half century. To be fair to Vijay, he probably looked mostly self-assured and technically competent until the moment of his demise in the both innings. Perhaps, he will go back to his virtuous best in the 2nd test match.

The Sheet Anchor

The ‘sheet anchor’ Pujara did play his part with the most conviction in the first inning but could not carry it forward to a score of any great consequence. To be fair to him, he was simply outmaneuvered by some crafty bowling from who else but the rampaging Philander who went on to scalp 6 Indian batsmen en route to his career best figures. In the second essay he was sent back to the hut before he could put his anchor down courtesy an absolute ‘jaffer’ from Morkel, Vernon’s hunting partner. Knowing him, he will come out with even greater resolve and dig deep into his bottomless well of concentration.

The Hitman

The prolific ‘Hitman’ who has in the recent past put many a bowler to sword was on this occasion himself the target of a quartet of ruthless headhunters and it didn’t help that the ghosts of his failures of past came back to torment his soul and mess with his mind. He looked confused and unsure of his mode of operation. He hung around for a decent amount of time and faced in excess of 50 balls but couldn’t translate that into runs against his name. He was out of character, out of luck and perhaps out of depth. He just might have played his last inning in the current test series,.

The Buccaneer

The young buccaneer Pandya stole the show in the first inning playing to instinct and most definitely to the occasion. The swashbuckling all-rounder took the attack to the Proteas and his risks paid off handsomely. Frivolous fortune too favored this irreverent arriviste. The gaping void left by the great Kapil Dev might be too big to fill for any other Indian all-rounder but this lad seems to have at least gotten himself to a half-decent start. We can only wish him the best as he seems to have the goods and the gods on his side.

The Custodian and the projectile men

The inconspicuous Wriddhiman Saha was spotless behind the stumps and was rewarded with a career best return of 10 catches in a test match by an Indian keeper eclipsing en route the previous record of 9 catches held by Nayan Mongia. But for all his heroics behind the wicket, he was a dismal failure in front of it. That said, the young man can and should be cut some slack as many more abled batters before him bit the dust of ignominy. He has been a tireless warrior and one hopes he will apply himself despite the inadequacies in his technique and turn out a better performance with the bat in his next outing. If he gets that chance that is….

The veteran Ashwin expectedly did not get a chance to bowl a substantial number of overs owing to the nature of the pitch as well as the performance of our fast men but in his abbreviated appearance with the ball in hand he did look pretty decent one has to admit. He had the rhythm going and was doing most things right in the first inning. His cover drive more than his carrom ball was the real story though. His resilience and stroke play in the second inning when the Indian funeral procession was passing through was commendable and showcased his natural ability with the bat. He came away as the second highest grosser in the batting honors! India should expect much more handsome returns from the tall, dark and some would say handsome Chennaiite both with bat and ball at Centurion.

What about that Bhuvi Kumar huh?! He just can’t seem to put a foot wrong. The bolt upright seam cuts through the air and the bat punches down the ground in a perfect V! He had the Protea batters tied in knots with that wicked swing and the much improved pace to boot. His two outings with the bat were’t any less spectacular considering the circumstances and the quality of the opposition bowling attack. He is in the prime of his career and probably at the peak of his powers and confidence too. India will need him to spearhead that much improved bowling attack if they harbor hopes of orchestrating a turnaround.

Bumrah and Shami started out shakily but by the second inning they were both firing on all cylinders. Bumrah needs to quickly adjust his lengths on different wickets especially ones that offer assistance to fast bowlers to derive maximum benefit. He has shown that he is quick learner and India will hope he takes his learnings from Capetown to Centurion. Shami is a handful when he is on song. That last spell in the second inning held glimpses of promise that his best is round the corner. India will rejoice if that were to happen in the coming games.

Moving on now to what lies next. Super Sport Park in centurion is being touted as just the kind of wicket that will enable a reversal in the Indian fortunes. Not as live as Newlands or the Bullring and that should suit the Indian batters and give them a chance at scoring the big runs they are so desperately seek. Indians could be in for a surprise though. If recent reports are to be believed, the Centurion wicket is as bouncy as the one at Capetown and if that turns out to be the case then the Indian team has a migraine waiting to strike.

Bounce has been the perennial Achilles heel of the Indian batters. I think they can handle the ball swinging at pace if only it bounced 4 inches less. That said, it is precisely the challenge the South African pitches and bowlers  present and if Virat and his men aspire to become the undisputed test champions then they need to figure a way out to negotiate that rearing ball. Admittedly it is alien to them, but as with all things unfamiliar one must watch, respect, learn and then master it.

The Conundrum

Every defeat necessitates some introspection and usually instigates some changes to the composition of the team and the game plan. Rahul coming in for Dhawan at the top and Sharma making way for Rahane in the middle are almost foregone conclusions in the minds of many. There are murmurs that Parthiv might replace Saha and that the mercurial Ishant will take Shami’s place.

I personally would like to see Shami persevered with as it felt like he was coming into his own toward the end of the game. For all the praise I have showered on Saha, I think Parthiv might just have that edge in terms of technique to be able to cope with what the Proteas throw at him. I could be betting on the wrong horse but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Will India make these wholesale changes? Is there any guarantee that the new men will fare any better especially when someone like Rahane who has been in woebegone form of late? The irony is that the player he would be replacing has been in the form of his life! Is it going to be track record over form? Your guess is as good as mine.

Virat has many questions to ponder over. Shastri will have his work cut out. Both their legacies are at stake. They must chose wisely but more importantly they must inspire their men regardless of which 11 stride out onto the field today to wage the most decisive of all battles. A battle they must win!