South Africa would not have wanted to lose the toss, certainly not on this Nagpur wicket. It meant that Hashim Amla and his team, just like in the previous two Tests, would have to play catch-up or at least be resigned to that fact in the back of their minds with the pitch behaving as if a game had been in progress for three days now.
It wouldn’t have been foolish to suggest that South Africa would have been relying more on spin to pick up wickets rather than pace. The pacers would have had to rely on the doubts caused by uneven bounce or reverse swing to pick up wickets. As Morne Morkel showed, South Africa’s main weapon was still pace, even on a dust bowl.
He started with zest early in the morning, even striking Murali Vijay on the body once, but there was not much else to explore, with the new ball. It was a pitch that was keeping low even when the ball was banged short, meaning South Africa’s pacers needed a change of tact to produce wickets.
And so, just after eight overs, Amla turned to spin. Not to Imran Tahir, who is not seen as a wicket-taking option with the newish ball, but to Simon Harmer and Dean Elgar, eliciting soft cries of shock from onlookers. The pitch was already turning big with puffs of dust blowing up when the ball landed.
It was a made-to-order pitch that had been delivered perfectly for India, who went in with three spinners and the extra batsman in Rohit Sharma, a deviance from Virat Kohli’s preferred strategy of five bowlers. But soon into the first hour on Wednesday (November 25), the rationale behind the move was evident. The extra batsman added some cushion while taking twenty wickets on this pitch was a straightforward ask off the spinners.
Elgar’s left-arm spin was used as an attacking option here by Amla as the game shifted to a distinctly sub-continent mood.
In the first hour, Vijay hogged the strike to almost render Dhawan invisible. Vijay had already attacked Harmer, lofting him over long on for six after missing a similar attempt earlier. When Dhawan tried a similar shot against Elgar, he only managed to spoon it back to the bowler. South Africa could not afford to look beyond spin after that moment. Tahir was brought on soon after the dismissal of Dhawan.
One of the reasons cited for delaying Tahir was his tendency to concede runs in boundaries – a terrible prospect in a game that had all the signs of being a low-scorer, thanks to the pitch. He lived up to that reputation, conceding two against Pujara in just his second over. He was replaced by Morkel, a move that provided an unexpected break.
Vijay, who seemed to have understood what was needed, was bating on 40 when he missed a delivery that straightened a touch. Morkel was rewarded for attacking the stumps.
It was the impetus that he needed. Morne’s reverse swing in the second session was revelatory. He, along with offie Simon Harmer, picked four wickets in the afternoon session. Harmer, attacking from round the stumps, finally got one to turn from outside off stump to trap Pujara plumb in front, Morkel broke through Rahane’s prod with a big in-dipper and later set-up Kohli to have him poking out and edging. India’s extra batsman, Rohit Sharma, edged an off-break onto his pads to be caught.
There were enough challenges on offer from the pitch. It also put India’s 85 for just two wickets in the first session into perspective. South Africa needed a session to guage the nature of the wicket and employ tactics suited to it. Those early runs might have just been a boon for the hosts. They will hope that the tail wags long and just enough to frustrate the visitors. South Africa will take heart if they keep India down to less than 200 but they will start their innings, with the puffs of dust and cracks playing on their mind.