When the No1 Test team in world is shot out for 135 chasing 208 in an away Test, it might look odd to be anything but critical of it. But dig a little deeper than an obligatory scan of the scoresheet and the opening Test was not all doom and gloom for India.
Firstly, full credit to South Africa for batting first on a pitch that had a lot of grass on it and then winning despite being without a crucial member of their pace attack in Dale Steyn in the second innings. Vernon Philander is a master in home conditions and he alone was enough to decimate the Indian line-up. Actually, he would have been enough for any line-up.
The wicket at Newlands turned out to be a lot juicier than even the hosts expected; despite the severe drought in the region leading up to the match. The track became even more difficult to bat on on the fourth day after the third was washed out.
India went into the match with next to zero preparation – which is completely their fault – and ended up conceding 286 on a spicy pitch. That’s where they lost the game as the South African pace attack was never going to let them anywhere close to that total. Apart from Hardik Pandya’s breath-taking 93 India’s batting did not live up to the mark, there is no doubt about it, but the fact is it was a 150-200 wicket throughout and the Proteas’ first innings total was where the game was effectively settled.
Brilliant from Philander. India can be proud of the way they bowled but was too much for the batsmen. Shows you conditions are king in test cricket— Harsha Bhogle (@bhogleharsha) January 8, 2018
In the second innings, Indian bowlers found their mark and dismissed the hosts for 130. The pace trio of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah clicked together, something that was missing in the first innings after reducing South Africa to 12-3. For all the brilliance of the AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis’ counter-attack in the first outing, it was not a (nearly) 300-run pitch. Remember, South Africa went in with just six specialist batsmen. Bumrah, especially, struggled with his line in his debut outing but once his nerves settled, he did what was expected of any quality quick on that pitch.
As India’s pace pack found their zone, the South Africans struggled to put bat to ball and lost 10 wickets for 78 runs in their second innings. However, by that time Virat Kohli’s bunch had fallen well behind. Even with Steyn out of the attack, Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel were always going to be lethal as the ball jagged around at acute angles. There was never going to be any escape.
India not disgraced in defeat. But as @imVkohli & Co lick their wounds, they'll wonder what may have been with some greater resolve shown. Promise to be a cracker of a series if India take some learnings from this hard lesson— Cricketwallah (@cricketwallah) January 8, 2018
India will take a long hard look at their performance in the first Test and will revisit their batting combination – namely the non-selection of KL Rahul and Ajinkya Rahane.
However, Test series of three matches or more are always decided by which team has the more potent and consistent bowling attack. That was the case in the Ashes in Australia and will be the case in South Africa as well. The South African pace attack will not lose its quality overnight. The pitches for the next two Tests in Centurion and Johannesburg are expected to be even nastier than Cape Town. Good luck if you are a batsman.
However, what the Indian bowlers can do is make sure than on pitches with so much help in them, they don’t concede 300. Good pacers should be able to dismantle any batting line-up on such wickets, day in and day out.
The South Africans will be buoyed by their ultimately convincing win. But the Indians should not get too flustered. There is a lot more drama left in the series.
Steve Smith‘s love for batting against English bowlers may one day entice him to venture back into county cricket.
Australia’s Ashes-winning captain averages more than 150 and has hit 604 runs against the best attack England has to offer so far this winter.
At 28, he has many more years of run-plundering ahead of him – and as he prepared for the fifth and final Test on his home ground in Sydney, he was happy to ponder the prospect of a return to the English domestic summer.
A decade ago, Smith had the option of joining Surrey – but that would have meant giving up on his ambition to play for his native country in favour of his English-born mother’s.
It was an option the then teenager never seriously considered. Since then, he has played Twenty20 cricket for Worcestershire on an overseas contract and admits he could well be tempted back at some point, especially by the lure of the County Championship.
“I’d love to play some county cricket at some point in my career as well,” said the world’s number one batsman.
Recalling his contract offer from Surrey, after one 2nd XI match for Kent in 2007, he said: “I never had ambitions to play for England as such – I always wanted to play for Australia.
“At 18 years of age, it sounded like quite a fair amount of money to me. (But) I always knew I wanted to come back and play for New South Wales and for Australia and do my best there.
“It was a decision I had to make at the time, and I think I chose the right one.”
He and Australia can have no cause for regret, this winter especially, although he admits the task of scoring a mountain of runs against England has just occasionally taken him out of his comfort zone.
Asked if it has been tiring at times, he said: “The other day (during the Melbourne Test) was, and I would say the Brisbane game was exhausting – the concentration I had to have for long periods of time.
“Perth was a bit different, because everything happened a bit quicker, and I was able to score quicker than I did in Melbourne and Brisbane.
“I was a little bit fatigued mentally, but a couple of days off and I was ready to go again.”
Provided by Press Association Sport
Back then, he was still a teenager yet to make his professional debut and testing the water in grade cricket – a young hopeful from Tyneside.
England were on their way to a 5-0 whitewash defeat, but Stoneman did not let that stop him lapping up the “top-dollar” atmosphere and daring to dream he could one day be a part of it for real out in the middle.
That day is about to dawn for the opener as England try to stave off a 4-0 defeat this time in the fifth and final Test.
In the intervening years, Stoneman returned several times to Sydney for stints with Bankstown and other clubs, met his wife Serene and made many friends here – before more recently upping sticks from Durham and heading to Surrey to further a career which has brought him his first seven Test caps over the past five months.
Casting his mind back to January 2007, when Andrew Flintoff’s tourists were about to lose one more time, he said: “It was incredible.
“The Barmy Army were in full voice, and Brett Lee was steaming.
“I was thinking how good it would be to be out there.”
He was past 30 by the time he made his Test debut, but insists he would not change a thing about his hard-earned progression.
“I dreamed about it. It was certainly a long way off.
“It’s been a long and winding road in between – but looking back, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
Stoneman has had something of a ‘nearly’ tour this winter, by his own admission – with two 50s and an average just under 30 – but how fitting it would be if he has saved his best for last back at the SCG.
“As much you try to compartmentalise and take each game as it comes… it was always going to be the icing of the tour on a personal note, to come back to Sydney, where I’ve spent a lot of time,” he said.
“I’ve got a lot of friends and family, and it’s something I’m very much looking forward to.”
His youthful trips to Australia have gone a long way to making the man.
“It was massive, on a personal and cricketing front,” added Stoneman.
“The two go hand in hand as you mature and learn a bit more about yourself.
“You take your game in various directions, and Sydney’s been a massive part of that.
“I met my wife out here, and she’s been a fantastic support as well – especially when things got a bit tough back home with the move down to Surrey.
“She’s always been 100 percent behind me, and that’s played a big part at times when things aren’t going as well as you’d like.”
Will there be extra nerves then when he walks out with Alastair Cook to set the tone for England?
No, apparently – he got them out of the way back in Brisbane six weeks ago.
“The first Test at the Gabba was up there in terms of hairs on the back of the neck, going through the anthems,” he said.
“The rest of it’s been great fun – I don’t think you can have as much fun playing cricket as you do playing for your country in the Ashes.”
Provided by Press Association Sport