After two years away, Test cricket at The Wanderers Cricket Stadium still tasted the same — of Joburg gold-dust and dreams made or destroyed.
The unfamiliar winning taste of South Africa beating India at this stadium — achieved for the first time — by chasing down a target of 240 on Thursday was a historic victory to follow other moments of breathlessness at The Bullring — as when South Africa beat Australia in 2006 by hunting down a world record 438 in a one-day international.
The Proteas reached 243 for the loss of three wickets on a grey Thursday afternoon sodden with almost six hours of rain. The wicket appeared to be spongier and easier to bat on as South Africa scored at around 3.6-runs per over to accumulate the 122 runs required of them when the 10am start was postponed on Thursday morning.
In a match where partnerships — Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, Dean Elgar and Keegan Petersen, Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram — proved crucial, Elgar, the Proteas captain anchored several in his team’s attritional advance to victory.
Elgar was unbeaten on 96 with Temba Bavuma alongside him (the pair having scored 68 together) at the end of the Test match which the captain described, in the post-match press conference as “do-or-die”. A fine, battling innings to go with the 28 runs he scored off 120 balls which blunted the menace of India’s pace attack on Monday afternoon (Day One) and Tuesday morning (Day Two).
Then, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami hemmed the Proteas back with deliveries moving in the air and jagging back in off the seam. Elgar also got hit in the head by Bumrah and, again, more often, during his second innings.
Elgar’s curmudgeonly approach to scoring runs while sticking around — he said his purpose is to occupy the crease for 40 overs in every innings — came to the fore against the premier pace attack in the world. He dulled the new ball and provided a batting foundation for his side to contest the match as they nosed ahead of India’s first innings total by 27 runs on Day Two.
Some of those late runs were scored with the clawing, scrambled, defiant sense of the importance of every single one.
After the match, Elgar spoke of the importance of victory, especially to a young team, some of whose members had never experienced a Test victory before. He said this helped them understand “what it means” but that it also cemented his place as captain and role-model.
Elgar described his innings and the subsequent victory as a “helluva lift for me for influencing the team environment and leading from the front”.
He added that his performance and the victory ensured younger members of his team would “trust” what he “says in the changeroom”.
There is a sense of dreams lingering after South Africa won the match by seven wickets to draw level in the three-match series, keeping next week’s Cape Town rubber alive.
There is certainly a sense of emboldened hope for a new emergent Proteas team flowering out of the administrative and player wreckage of the past five years.
For South Africa, beanpole 20-year-old strike-bowler Marco Jansen’s control, discipline and bouncy menace improved significantly following his Centurion debut where he garnered one wicket for 69 runs in the first innings and four wickets for 55 runs in the second innings. At the Wanderers, he picked up four wickets for 31 runs in the first Indian innings and three for 67 runs in the second.
Kagiso Rabada delivered one of the stand-out periods of play on the morning of Day Three when he dislodged both Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane just before lunch. Both batsmen were emerging from individual lean spells and calls for them to be dropped going into this series. But, their half centuries on Wednesday morning had restored India’s ascendancy in the Test match.
Elgar said he had a “tough-nut” conversation with Rabada which appeared to have motivated a spell of fiery bowling by the paceman, which saw three wickets fall in 22 balls.
Keegan Petersen built on his reputation with scores of 62 and 28 in two tidy and compact batting displays that suggested he may yet develop into a solution to South Africa’s problem number three batting position — a vacancy never properly filled following the retirement of Hashim Amla in 2019.
Rassie van der Dussen, who follows Petersen at number four on the Proteas batting card has had a more difficult time compiling the kind of Test runs to cement his place in the team. In South Africa’s first innings he was caught behind by wicketkeeper Rishabh Pant off the bowling of Shardul Thakur for one run, and walked.
Replays showed the ball appearing to fall short of Pant’s gloves but there was no succour for Van Der Dussen who had long crossed the boundary line.
In a match of partnerships, perhaps Van Der Dussen had taken inspiration from the whisky brand who are sponsors in the series and whose mantra to “keep walking” is broadcast often during breaks in play.
This is perhaps one of cricket’s more unfortunate partnerships, especially since the boundary around the Bullring features statues of the whisky brand’s eponymous figurehead: in coat-tails, riding boots and with walking stick in hand; tipping his top-hat nonchalantly to someone as if to convince them that he is not walking away with both Oliver Twist’s kidneys — while he does.
A Victorian-era version of former South African president Jacob Zuma and his ongoing attempts to “keep walking” away from court appearances, commissions of enquiries or any kind of accountability for almost a decade of relentless pillaging of the state.
This was a great Test match, when the momentum between the two sides swung more often than the pendulum on the Doomsday Clock.
And even The Wanderers, this muscular manifestation of Johannesburg’s rude, crude, Wild West history; a brick and steel confirmation of the all-or-nothing hardness of its current residents contributed in the only way it could, despite being almost empty.
The coronavirus pandemic has seen fans barred from the Test matches, with only 2000 hospitality seats available for each match during the tour. Most of these have been taken up by corporate partners and the CSA and BCCI suits in suites.
The Bullring was almost empty. There were hardly any fans to berate Pant for a perceived error of judgment if, indeed, the ball which got Van Der Dussen out did not carry to his gloves. No fawning adulation for Rabada to celebrate his Herculean three wickets for twelve runs in 22 balls during that ferocious spell of fast-balling to end the morning session of Day Three.
Yet, something stirred. A group of schoolchildren who made one of the hospitality suites started driving fan-fire on Day Three. They shouted and cheered and, magically, appeared to fill The Bullring to make it sound as if ten thousand, rather than just one, was supporting the Proteas
There were moments of snatched witticism too.
While fielding at the midwicket boundary on Day Three, Thakur ventured a shy wave to the people in the stands. A wit in the Yoga Experience box responded with a chirpy “Why are you only waving at the women in the stands?” which caused a super-spread of laughter both on the field and the stands.
The Yoga Experience studio, with freshly-made ginger “tequila shots”, vegan cake and early morning yoga sessions, itself, is a surprising — and quietly reflective — new addition to this bawdy, loud-mouthed stadium that is so often consumed by beer, hard liquor and machismo.
Watching Test cricket live again for the first time since England trounced South Africa here in January 2020 remains a very different prospect from what Daniel Gallan describes in his incomparable ode to The Wanderers published in the The Nightwatchman: “The stands are a heaving, swirling mass. The noise rises and falls like a Highveld summer storm. Lightning, thunder, deluge; a cacophony of colour and sound. This is the Bull Ring. Not merely a cricket stadium but an ode to the elements. A cathedral that pays homage to the full fury of nature’s brilliance. All that is thrilling about this meandering sport is condensed here. This ground has grown up in the City of Gold and now embodies the impatience of its people, never missing a chance to hit the fast-forward button on a stagnant day’s play. No other venue in the world can match the firepower of a breathless showstopper at the Wanderers.”
Yet, as the rain dissipated and the South African batting gathered around their defiant captain, the Wanderers remained the Bullring: a place where hope lingers, dreams are made or destroyed, and where South Africa finally beat India in a Test match.