The early end to the third day’s play in Centurion was ushered in in the most bizarre of circumstances. A solitary rain cloud, black as the night and pregnant with water, found its way to the SuperSport Park – accompanied by lightning and thunder — and settled directly over the cricket pitch. All around the cloud, the city of Centurion was covered by the bluest skies. But over the ground, and specifically over the pitch, the scene was out of a doomsday movie. The cloud opened. The ground flooded. The day was soon called off, after the cloud had passed, under bright blue skies.
Just like the end, Monday had begun in equally bizarre circumstances. Exactly six overs after the overnight Indian batsmen, Virat Kohli and Hardik Pandya, resumed their innings, the latter experienced a brain freeze for the ages. Pandya blocked a Kagiso Rabada delivery and the ball trickled to mid-on, where the burly Vernon Philander stood. Pandya, in his forward motion after completing the stroke, checked with Kohli if he would like to attempt a quick run. Kohli’s reply was a resounding ‘No’, so Pandya turned back to re-enter the batting crease, the few metres that he had moved ahead due to inertia. As he reached his safe zone, Philander’s throw hit the stumps and ricocheted away to a vacant region on the field, so the batting pair ended up sneaking a run eventually.
The umpire, however, just to be 100 per cent certain, decided to go upstairs and check if Pandya indeed had survived the Philander throw. ‘Pffft, of course he had,’ was the on field verdict.
The replay left everyone aghast. Pandya had indeed re-entered the batting crease, about a metre in, when the stump was felled. But both his feet were in the air. And, crucially, he hadn’t grounded his bat. When the big screen confirmed that he was out, there were more gasps than cheers in the stands. As Kohli threw his bat away in disbelief, Pandya walked away – slapping the base of his bat against his protected forehead with every step. This partnership, had there been one, was India’s golden chance to wipe off the overnight deficit of 153 runs. Instead, due to an unpardonable blooper, Pandya, the hero of the first Test, was gone, leaving the second Test’s hero-in-the-making with R Ashwin and the tail – still 126 runs adrift.
Kohli, with a little help from Ashwin, managed to bring that deficit number down to 28. For, in between the two brackets of bizarre, it was business as usual at Centurion – where South Africa and India played yet another day to remember, yet another display of no-quarter cricket to cherish. When the day ended, abruptly, South Africa had edged ahead by the slightest of margins, with the hosts leading by 118 runs with eight wickets remaining; with AB de Villiers in form, on 50 and still at the crease. But let’s not get ahead of the narrative just yet.
Minutes before Pandya had departed, Kohli had added 15 runs to his overnight score of 85 and brought up his 21st Test century. This knock was also his 11th hundred outside of India, but few of the other 10 were as disciplined, or as defiant. On a pitch where none of the South Africans breached the three-figure mark, Kohli ended up making one and a half centuries. For a large part of the second half of his longest innings on these shores, he had the astute Ashwin for company. The off-spinner scored 38 invaluable runs, a good portion of those struck in one over where he took on the toughest bowler on this pitch, Rabada, and cracked three glorious fours.
Ashwin eventually fell to the second new ball and Kohli, perhaps tired of shepherding the tail, followed him soon after when he holed out at long on. The Indian captain had focussed for six hours and change, spread over two days, and had amassed 153 runs. Now, it was finally over.
Even before South Africa began their second innings, their score was 28 for no loss. The wickets column rolled over twice in the space of three Jasprit Bumrah overs. He trapped Aiden Markram, scorer of 94 runs in the first innings, LBW with his second ball for 1. And then he trapped Hashim Amla too, scorer of 82 runs in the first innings, LBW for 1. With the scorecard in shambles, 3 for two, in walked de Villiers, the batsman of the tour so far. Bumrah, a slingy Yorker specialist in the limited overs, greeted him with an impeccable ball in the blockhole, under the shadow of the batsman’s middle stump. Had any other South African been at the crease, he would’ve been dismissed — plumb in front or clean bowled. But because this was AB, he managed to get the slightest tickle of his bat on the ball, which obediently ran away past fine leg for four. De Villiers sighed, visibly draining out the pressure from his lungs, and not long after, draining out the pressure created by Bumrah’s spell.
AB was soon cutting Bumrah off his backfoot for boundaries through point and square leg and driving Ishant Sharma directly through his stilt-like legs for four more. When Mohammed Shami extracted tennis ball bounce from this dead pitch, de Villiers replied with a tennis-like smash through the covers, inching towards his fifty. Just after he got there, ballooning SA’s lead to 118 and fast approaching safety, Bumrah bowled de Villiers a snorter. The ball pitched outside his off stump, rose inconveniently and missed taking a nick of his bat by a nanometre. De Villiers sighed. And at the same time, one caricature of a cloud did.
Brief scores: Centurion, Day Three – South Africa 335 & 90 for two in 29 overs (AB de Villiers 50 not out, D Elgar 36 not out; J Bumrah 2/30) lead India 307 all out in 92.1 overs (V Kohli 153, M Vijay 46; M Morkel 4/60) by 118 runs.