Proteas’ hungry young lions drive SA to Test victory over India

At 13.40 on Friday, the fourth day of the Test match between South Africa and India at Cape Town’s Newlands Cricket Stadium, the hosts reached 212 runs in their second innings to win the match.

In doing so, the Proteas beat what is currently the number one-ranked Test team in the world by seven wickets to take the three-match home summer series 2-1.

A fact that, when it is entered in the record books, will not include the context that has hung over the series like the gloomy pall that clung greyly around Newlands on Day One as cloud and drizzle consumed this city’s most iconic feature: Table Mountain.

South Africa was not expected to win this series. Let alone a Test match. This is a team in transition. One with youthful, callow players, some with limited opportunities to prove they are ready to replace the Test titans who have preceded them: players like Hashim Amla, Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn. A youthful side whose Black players have to battle the opposition as much as racist sections of South African media and fans — whose expectations demand they fail — whenever they stride out over the boundary.

India meanwhile has dominated the game both on and off the field for almost a decade. Their Test side is fuelled by the millions of dollars in television revenue which has allowed for expansive development programmes and commendable long-term planning for its age-division and A teams. 

Cricketing infrastructure which has fed the talents and expectations of almost 1.5-billion people into a Test side relentlessly seeking perfection. A winning juggernaut that has defied historical stereotypes about its bowling and batting to produce one of the best, and most varied, pace attacks in the world to complement a batting line-up that includes the grit of Chesteshwar Pujara, the glam of Rishabh Pant and the likes of KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma (not on this tour because of injury) in-between — a batting card to score runs anywhere in the world.

India is a Goliath of a team fired on by an intensely demanding captain in Virat Kohli who has led them to overseas Test series wins in England and Australia.

Yet. Somehow. On the 14th day of a new year, South Africa remained unconquered. That its unblemished record against India on home soil was defended by a group of young players with everything to prove has added to the incredulity that has surrounded this series victory.

Many South African fans would be wondering how this team did what it has? A question that did not elude Proteas coach Mark Boucher who, in the post-match press conference stressed how great an achievement their victory was when one “put into perspective” where the two teams were in their playing cycles.

Boucher and Proteas captain Dean Elgar have talked about some of the essential components of the series victory: the “hard chats” between players, senior “characters” in the side influencing the matches through form and experience, victory helping to bind this team into a unit which is slowly emerging with a new identity.

Also, the emergence of young players like Marco Jansen and Keegan Petersen — something that would be most apparent to the South African public. After a slow start in Centurion (when he scored 15 and 17) Petersen has batted with a composed and compact elegance through the rest of the series. He scored 62 and 28 at the Wanderers as South Africa clawed their way back to level the series after the 113 run loss in the first match.

At Newlands, whether reverse-sweeping Ravi Ashwin or driving Jasprit Bumrah through the covers, Petersen was effortless — and nerveless — in amassing top scores in each innings (72 off 166 balls and 82 off 113 balls). Performances which also sealed the Man of the Series award for the 28-year-old who has, unfathomably, only completed his fifth Test for South Africa after this match. 

Petersen shone on a pitch that Pujara, that most cerebral of batsmen, described as being a true Test wicket. One which tested batsmen’s technical abilities as much as their mental fortitude when exercising judgment in shot selection. Newlands was a test of Petersen’s technique and temperament and he passed with the kind of colours which weren’t just flying, but safely ensconced in First Class.

Whisper it, but the Proteas may finally have a Number Three Test batsman to replace Amla.

Left-arm paceman Marco Jansen finished with three wickets for 55 runs and four wickets for 36 runs in this match and was described by Boucher as a “superstar” because of his troublesome bounce and pesky angles into batsmen. 

Another bowler instrumental in limiting India to, respectively, scores of 223 and 198 in their first and second innings, was Kagiso Rabada, whose duel with Kohli on Day One of the match was one of those attritional, no-quarter allowed periods of play that is so definitive of the testing nature of Test cricket.

Rabada eventually finished with figures of four wickets for 73 in 22 overs and three wickets for 53 in 17 overs. The 26-year-old’s performance over the summer has confirmed his position as a leader in the team and an established superstar in the global game. 

But to look at South Africa’s victory is to also consider India’s loss. 

Moving past Pant’s exhilarating and singular century in the Indian second innings, the ranting of Kohli against the television review system and Bumrah’s electric-shock bowling, Boucher’s words to consider where these two teams are in their individual trajectories is essential.

There is a sense that the omnipresent power of Kohli in Indian cricket is waning. That the recent spats with the BCCI over his captaincy of India’s limited-overs team has eroded his executive authority. That his personal search for his first century in two years — regardless of how important some of his lesser knocks have been — will soon be weaponised against him by the game’s power-brokers back home. That this may be a captain whose team may be reaching the beginning of the end of a victory cycle.

Nevertheless. This was Test cricket. A test of the physical and the mental attributes of individuals and teams. Some would argue a test of nations and ideas of nationhood. And somehow the Proteas emerged victorious against the best — and most powerful — side in the world right now.

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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