CAPE TOWN: Of the 10 Indian wickets to fall on Day Four of the first Test, Vernon Philander – the Capetonian with a versatile ability to swing the ball both ways – picked six. Among them were two tailenders, one bowling allrounder (R Ashwin), one struggling opener (M Vijay) and two in the middle order (Kohli and Sharma).
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Philander turned out to be the bowler of the match, picking his best match-haul ever. Yet, as this series moves ahead to the second Test in Centurion, there are those who remain convinced that Philander, the slowest among South Africa’s pacers and yet the most dangerous in conditions suiting his style, will not be as lethal now.
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Centurion will be a hard deck assisting some pace, no doubt, but what will be missing, says a legend from around those parts – a certain Fannie de Villiers – is the swing, one that both sides enjoyed at the Newlands.
Fannie won’t be around at the game. He says he’s travelling. But while he’s away, there’s no missing out on the cricket at home. “India still have a mighty chance,” he feels. The former SA pacer’s instincts arise from the small Centurion ground that, he insists, will be “great for batting”. “The Indian openers need a bit of settling down,” he says.
The last time India toured here, in Dec 2013, they played only two Test matches, drawing at the Wanderers and losing by 10 wickets in Kingsmead, Durban. Dhawan and Vijay opened for the side in both those games. Vijay scored 97 in Durban but Dhawan struggled.
In fact, Vijay toured South Africa for the series played in 2010-11 too but played only one of the three Test matches – in Durban – without making an impact.
With 54 Tests under his belt already, 10 years of playing the longest format and having twice toured South Africa in the past, his searching of the ball outside the line and falling to ill-timed, wrong-footed strokes – the dismissals alongside two field-umpire decisions that were turned down with DRS – haven’t made for an impressive outing.
At the other end was Dhawan, who simply hasn’t been able to figure out his approach against the lethal SA pace attack. The left-hander’s first innings dismissal of Steyn, one that might rank among the most depressing of all dismissals if seen from India’s point of view, set the wrong tone.
Going by what Faf believes, Centurion, says the skipper, won’t be any less quick. “They’re renowned for being a little bit quicker,” he says. He knows the only bit on India’s mind right now would be about wondering what hit them at Newlands.
It is here that Rahul makes a clear case for himself. The Karnataka opener, who has proved himself across formats, has shown a massive appetite for runs in the domestic circuit and clearly makes a cut for Test selection where the present challenge is concerned.
All the three openers have been pretty vocal on more than one occasion that they happen to be very close friends. In an interview with a website December last year, Vijay, in fact, had spoken in detail about the rapport they share off the field.
It is the same camaraderie that might possibly help the trio sit and discuss, in all honesty, what may be needed to save the Centurion Test if India are to stay alive in this series. Horses for courses, as Faf has wanted for his team, should be the way forward for India too.