South Africa were on course to what seemed a rather straightforward victory. Then the winds of change blew. Table mountain decided to drape itself in clouds and instead of sunshine, Newlands received sweet summer rain. On a spruced-up day four wicket that spent a day snuggling under the covers, India’s fast bowlers charged in and blew away South Africa’s second innings, giving their batsmen 208 to claim a famous victory. Unfortunately for India, what went around, came around with interest as Vernon Philander produced an outstanding piece of seam bowling – his career-best figures of 6 for 42 – giving South Africa a 72-run win and the 1-0 series lead.
Only the formalities were left for the final session. All the drama was played out before that. It began in the morning with Virat Kohli chirping chodna mat, asking his bowlers not to offer any batsman a semblance of comfort – least of all the nightwatchman Kagiso Rabada. As Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah set about responding to their captain’s call, the wickets began tumbling in a heap.
Four fell in the first hour for the addition of 27 runs. The other four fell in the next with only AB de Villiers alternating between farming strike and uppercuting bowlers for six over third man. Still, when he was dismissed for the innings top score of 35, South Africa were bowled out for 130. That gave India renewed hope: on a juiced-up wicket with the ball jagging around, a target of 208 would be tough but they hoped, not impossible. And as Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan pushed that score to 30 for 0 after the first half-an-hour post lunch, they were perhaps favourites.
The pressure, though, was inescapable. On the openers, on South Africa, who had their reputation as hosts to defend. And the umpires. Vijay was reprieved twice by DRS, once off an LBW shout and the other for a caught behind shout. Each time, Philander had run to his mates to celebrate even before the umpire had made his call. But Vijay had survived and some runs had even come. Then the wickets did and in keeping with the rest of the Test match, they were hard to stop.
Morkel got one to steeply rise on Dhawan, who could only take his eyes off the ball and fend a catch to gully. Philander then got third-time lucky with Vijay, with a thickish outside and de Villiers’s slip fielding leaving no wiggle room for an escape. When Morkel returned for another spell, this time from his favourite Wynberg end, he reduced India to 39 for 3, getting Pujara nicking off to a length delivery that bounced more than usual.
India’s hopes once again rested on their pied piper and Kohli began like his usual busy self: playing (missing sometimes) at most deliveries and sprinting hard when given the chance. There was flick to fine leg and push to cover for boundaries. The captain scored at a rate of over 70 before Philander pulled the handbrakes and brought India’s innings to a screeching halt. Kohli, circumspect about the away seamer, was done in by a full and straighter delivery. He reviewed, of course, but the three reds on the screen all but rubber-stamped India’s fate.
Rohit was then lulled into a false sense of belief that he could pull Rabada on this wicket. His top-edge however was grassed by Keshav Maharaj, who failed to get a hand on it. The reprieve only gave Rohit a break of five interim deliveries, he played on to Philander and was bowled out for 10. First-innings hero Hardik Pandya and Wriddhiman Saha fell to leave India 82 for 7 at Tea and a further 126 runs from the title.
The break was just right for a fatigued Philander to help him push for his fiver. His scalps in the final session included a nuggety R Ashwin, caught behind by a standing-up-to-the-stumps de Kock. Shami and Bumrah then fell off successive deliveries as others around them burst into euphoric celebrations. Unlike the morning session, they weren’t part of this merrymaking.
South Africa’s eventual margin of victory – 72 runs – may have been bigger but for their own collapse on a spicy wicket. Nothing revealed the devils of their made-to-order pitch more than the Bumrah delivery that rose from length and spat on Faf du Plessis, who despite his best efforts to get away, still managed to glove the ball to the keeper. Before him, Hashim Amla and nightwatchman Kagiso Rabada had nicked off during a superlative Mohammed Shami spell.
South Africa who’d arrived on Day 4 at 65 for 2 , lost eight wickets for the next 65 to be bowled out for 130. AB de Villiers’s calculated 35 had taken the target past the psychological 200-run mark, but with home-boy Philander in their ranks – those were simply insurance runs.