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Cheteshwar Pujara, Mohammed Shami among Team India’s many positives from Johannesburg Test

    Mohammed Shami... the emergence of the right-arm pacer has to be the single biggest boon for Indian cricket in recent time © AFP
Mohammed Shami… the emergence of the right-arm pacer has to be the single biggest boon for Indian cricket in recent time © AFP

The Johannesburg Test may have ended in an epic draw, but India gained a lot from the first Test against South Africa at the Wanderers. H Natarajan lists the many positives for MS Dhoni and his men.

 

When VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid turned what looked like an inevitable innings defeat into a Ripleyesque victory in the 2001 Kolkata Test against Australia, we lavished praises on the duo’s epic batting efforts. But when Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers altered the script from an almost certain Indian victory to what was arguably the greatest draw in Test history, we look for negatives in the bowling, rather than positives in the South African batting. The Indian cricket fan needs to get his perspective right and give due credit to the opposition.

 

Any Test that raises the possibility of all four results — a win for either side, draw and tie — is a great advert for the traditional format of the sport. It’s a format that is suffering a much worse battle than healthy eats against fast-food. And the Jo’Burg Test that ended in a near photo-finish has to be ranked among the great classics of the 133-year-old history of Test cricket. The players of either team deserve all the hosannas for making it such a riveting contest.

 

After being dominated for four days and a considerable portion of the final day, South Africa brought out the beautiful vicissitudes of the game by providing a brilliant twist to the script. The never-say-die spirit of this energetic young Indian side and the run-out of du Plessis by Ajinkya Rahane provided the final twist, at which point an Indian victory was a distinct possibility. With Morne Morkel in the casualty list and Imran Tahir no threat with the bat, Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn understandably did not want to fritter away the match, though one cannot entirely blame the South African cricket fans for feeling that their team lost an opportunity when 16 were needed off a possible 19 legal deliveries.

 

Almost everyone, including cerebral experts who played the game with distinction for their countries, felt that 250 would be a winning target on a tricky Wanderers pitch, with the anti-MS Dhoni brigade lampooning the Indian captain for delaying the declaration. The target of 458 was Himalayan, yet the closeness of the encounter justified the calculations of the Indian skipper.

 

Virat Kohli said in a post-match chat with the media that he was surprised South Africa did not press on for victory, while Graeme Smith understandably defended Philander and Steyn for pulling down the shutters. The South African captain, however, spoilt the occasion a bit by saying that “India did not show enough desire to win.” His remarks were quite uncharitable.

 

It would be cruel to blame any team and it was celestial justice that the game ended in one of the most exciting draws, though a tie would have given the Test the aura it deserved.

 

 

The dawn of an exciting new era in Indian cricket

 

If there was one team which walked away with many plusses to its credit at the end of the first Test, it is India. Few offered the team much of a chance on South African wickets that offered disconcerting bounce and copious pace, against the likes of Steyn, Philander and Morkel. When you add Jacques Kallis to that troika, we are looking at a relentless pace attack — not the kind of diet Indian batsmen have an appetite for, a fact that was quickly underlined in the One-Day International (ODI) series preceding the Test series.

 

Cheteshwar Pujara’s latest hundred was his sixth in 16 Tests in which he now averages a jaw-dropping 67.63 — next only to Sir Don Bradman among batsmen who have played a minimum of 20 innings © AFP
Cheteshwar Pujara’s (above) latest hundred was his sixth in 16 Tests in which he now averages a jaw-dropping 67.63 — next only to Sir Don Bradman among batsmen who have played a minimum of 20 innings © AFP

Let’s list the positives:

 

  • This was the first Test since Sachin Tendulkar bid an emotional farewell to international cricket, but Virat Kohli wasted no time to show why he is a worthy of occupying the much-revered No 4 position in the Indian line-up, by scoring 119 and 96 and walking away with the Man of the Match award.

 

  • If Rahul Dravid was “The Wall” at No 3, Cheteshwar Pujara showed yet again why he should be hailed as “The Limpet” at the one-drop position. His 153 followed hundreds in the three preceding matches — 113 (3rd Test vs West Indies), 102 (vs Bengal) and 269 (vs Tamil Nadu). His latest hundred was his sixth in 16 Tests in which he now averages a jaw-dropping 67.63 — next only to Sir Don Bradman among batsmen who have played a minimum of 20 innings. Most importantly, he smashed a myth that he cannot score at a fast clip by scoring 96 (in 114 balls) of the 175 runs in the final session of India’s second innings. And that too against a high-quality pace attack. It was the kind of statement that would certainly earn him a place in the India ODI squad — something that should have been as a matter or right, even before this Test. Those who moan about Pujara’s strike-rate should remember that he scores at 52.89, which is superior to even the stroke-making Kohli at 48.98.

 

  • Ajinkya Rahane finally got a Test after warming the bench for a long time and justified his selection with a well-complied 47 in the first innings.

 

  • With four wickets in the first innings, Zaheer Khan showed why it would be premature to write his international cricket obit. He looked leaner, fitter and hungrier, bowling with much of the guile that made him such a dangerous bowler. He deservedly got his 300th wicket in Tests and gave enough reasons to assure that he will be here for a while to mentor the likes of Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav and Mohit Sharma.

 

  • India have traditionally struggled to find bowlers of international quality, which is why the emergence of Shami has to be the single biggest boon for Indian cricket in recent time. Here is a bowler who not only has craft, but also a healthy pace to bamboozle the best of international batsmen in the world. The high proportion of wickets that he has taken by way of bowled or leg before wicket speaks volumes of his abilities. There is enough indication that he will be an important member of the Indian attack in the years to come. He should have got lot more than the five wickets he got at Wanderers.

 

  • Ishant Sharma has not quite justified the long rope he has been given over the years. But he walked away with five wickets in the Test — the same as Zaheer and Shami — and positive endorsements of his abilities from the classy Hashim Amla, who offered no stroke to a sharp incoming ball to have his off peg knocked back.

 

  • Ravichandran Ashwin went wicketless in the Test, but he played a significant role in keeping one end tight by conceding just 86 runs 36 overs.

 

  • One of the biggest statements this Indian team made is to exorcise the demon of Steyn, the world’s most dreaded fast bowler who for the first time in his 68-Test career suffered the ignominy of conceding over 100 runs an innings without getting a wicket.

 

Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma may not have got too many runs in the Test, but there is no mistaking that the two, along with the likes of Kohli, Pujara, Ravindra Jadeja, and others of Generation Next, make this Indian team a lot different from those of the past. It brings with it a flair that can take the best the opposition has to offer, and in the opposition’s den. One just have to look at a highly-professional team like Australia to realise the painful pangs of transition to appreciate the worth of the newcomers in the Indian team who have ensured that we don’t miss the like of  Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has taken a lot of flak, mostly justified. However, the Indian board needs to be given full credit for giving young Indian talent generous exposure overseas, which has made the transition quite painless. Well done, BCCI!

 

(H Natarajan, formerly All India Deputy Sports Editor of the Indian Express and Senior Editor with Cricinfo/Wisden, is the Executive Editor of CricketCountry.com. A prolific writer, he has written for many of the biggest newspapers, magazines and websites all over the world. A great believer in the power of social media, he can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/H.Natarajan and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/hnatarajan)

 

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