When the final day of a three-Test series begins with the teams locked 1-1, and with one team needing eight wickets for victory and the other 111 runs, on a pitch where both outcomes are equally plausible, you can safely say that the gap between the two teams is a narrow one, no matter what the final outcome is.
This was true even after South Africa wrapped up their second successive seven-wicket win to complete a come-from-behind series victory. As in the second Test in Johannesburg, their margin of victory in Cape Town was probably slightly misleading. Both teams were playing five-bowler combinations, and in the first three innings, the last six wickets had fallen for the addition of 56, 51 and 46 runs, respectively.
Had India found an opening early on this fourth day, the result, and the series scoreline, could have been very different.
India didn’t find that opening, however, and when a team loses back-to-back Test matches in a similar manner, you might wonder if there’s more to those results than coincidence. Here, then, are three factors that possibly contributed to India’s defeat.
India gamble on all-out attack
India bowled 13.2 overs before the day’s first drinks break, and conceded 47 runs. That’s just over 3.5 runs an over, a healthy scoring rate in Test cricket, especially for a side in South Africa’s position at the start of play.
If you watched how that hour unfolded, however, it was clear this wasn’t the result of loose bowling. On the contrary, it felt like a wicket could fall at any moment, with Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami pitching the ball up and swinging it around corners. Of the 80 balls India bowled before the drinks break, 20 drew false shots. That’s one in four balls.
There was swing available, and India looked to pitch the ball up and maximise its effect. It worked, if only in the sense of discomfiting South Africa’s batters. There is an element of subjectivity in ESPNcricinfo’s length data, but it’s still instructive. Seven of the 18 balls that India pitched on the full length in this period drew not-in-control responses. But luck was on South Africa’s side, with both Keegan Petersen and Rassie van der Dussen getting beaten on the drive without their edges being found, and slicing and edging the ball through gaps in the cordon.
And when bowlers look to bowl full, they also run the risk of overpitching, and Petersen and van der Dussen also found the boundary with smooth drives through the covers in this period.
So even as the full length drew the most uncertainty from South Africa’s batters (a control percentage of 61 compared to 79 for good-length balls), it was also the most expensive length, with 18 balls producing 21 runs.
India’s captain on the team’s batting failure, the form of Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, and moving on to the ODIs
It’s the natural risk of bowling an all-out-attacking length, even when the ball swings – as this deep dive into Test-match lengths by the former England analyst Nathan Leamon illustrates beautifully – but on another day, the false shots India drew may have led to the early opening they craved.
The question does arise, though, whether India may have been better served hammering away on a good length and waiting to create chances while keeping a tighter lid on the scoring. Perhaps India’s best phase of the day came during a 45-minute window either side of the drinks break, when they pulled their length back slightly.
Bumrah created a clear-cut chance with extra lift from a good length, only for Cheteshwar Pujara to shell a straightforward chance at first slip. Shami and Shardul Thakur then caused constant problems while conceding just three runs in the space of seven overs, during which Petersen inside-edged a good-length ball onto his stumps.
But South Africa were already well on course by then, needing just 55 at that stage with seven wickets in hand, and Temba Bavuma put away a couple of rare loose balls in the first over of a new spell from Bumrah to jam the door shut on India.
Bounce is a double-edged sword
There was another reason why India looked to bowl full in the morning. Given how much the ball was bouncing on this surface, it was the only way to bring lbw into play.
South Africa took all their 20 wickets through catches – a first in Test cricket. Bumrah took two of his first-innings wickets via bowleds, but none of India’s other wickets had involved the stumps. All their lbw appeals had either been turned down on the field or upheld only to be overturned on review – much to their chagrin on one occasion late on day three.
So futile did their quest for lbw become that at one point on this fourth day, Umesh Yadav got one to nip back at the crease-bound van der Dussen and strike his pad within the line of the stumps, only to turn around and begin walking back to his mark without bothering to appeal. It was clearly, clearly going to bounce over the stumps.
Why then did India keep trying to attack the stumps and bowl fuller lengths, when South Africa’s quicks had derived so much success from hitting the pitch hard and extracting steep bounce?
There were two reasons for this. Bowlers groove their lengths and their modes of attack over years and years, and it’s not straightforward to shift to an entirely different mode of operation in the middle of a tour. And South Africa’s fast bowlers, as in Johannesburg, came into this Test match with a clear advantage in height, as well as the advantage of these being their home conditions.
“We have different strengths,” Virat Kohli said at his post-match press conference. “So to compare their bowlers to ours will not be correct, because the kind of help that we get on all pitches across the world, I don’t think any other bowling attack is able to do that at the current moment, and precisely why we have been so successful everywhere in the world.
“Our strengths are different, we probably bowl at different areas and there are many different ways to pick up wickets, so I think it’s important to focus on your strength as a team. Appreciate what the opposition did well, they exploited the conditions with their pace and bounce, which obviously they’ve grown up in these conditions, they know these pitches so well and which areas to bowl at, and consistently hit those areas, so you have to give them credit for that, but at the same time, you have to understand your strengths and keep sticking to it, and understand that that has gotten those results in the past, so that should hold you in good stead even moving forward.”
On pitches with plenty of bounce in Australia, India have won two successive Test series while attacking the stumps far more consistently than their opposition.
And while South Africa clearly made their home advantage count in this series, with their fast bowlers finishing with a collective average of 20.13 as compared to India’s 24.58, it wasn’t a mismatch, as it had been when India were the home side in 2019-20. Then, India’s quicks had averaged 17.50 and South Africa’s 70.20.
Did India have enough to defend?
While there was a small but eventually significant gap between the two attacks, could India have done more with the bat to mitigate it? South Africa’s bowling was unplayable at times, particularly on the third morning when brutal lifters from Marco Jansen and Kagiso Rabada made short work of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. But on this pitch, the ball had misbehaved less as it became older – an observation that Bumrah made during his press conference at the end of day two – and there was one critical phase during India’s second innings when their batters may have played a part in their own downfall.
Kohli had battled his way to 29 off 142 balls while following a similar template to his first-innings 79, avoiding drives unless the ball was pitched right up. While runs were coming at a drip from his end, Rishabh Pant was scoring freely, and they had put on 94 for the fifth wicket.
At that point, Kohli drove away from his body and nicked Lungi Ngidi to second slip. R Ashwin and Shardul Thakur, India’s allrounders at Nos. 7 and 8, also fell in similar fashion during the same spell, driving away from their body at Ngidi’s outswingers. Ashwin sliced one to gully soon after he had edged a similar shot and been dropped in the slips.
These were probably the lapses of concentration that Kohli pointed to as match-changing events during the post-match presentation.
“One of the challenges we have faced over the years touring abroad has been to make sure that we capitalise on the momentum when it’s on our side,” he said. “When we do that, we’ve won Test matches quite a bit away from home as well. But when we haven’t – we’ve actually had lapses in concentration which have been quite bad, and those have actually cost us a Test match completely.
“Half an hour, 45 minutes of… you could say lack of application at times. Quality bowling from the opposition as well this series. But that’s what we basically boil it down to. We’ve had a few collapses now which have cost us important moments, and eventually Test matches.”
Coming into this series, India were without Ravindra Jadeja, whom they now view as a full-fledged batting allrounder in overseas conditions, even batting him ahead of Pant at times. Ashwin has batted at No. 6 for India before, but his batting has fallen away quite a bit in the years since.
Ashwin’s batting has gained some of its old sparkle over the last year or so, though, and one of the contributing factors has been the freedom of his attacking game against the fast bowlers. His counterattack in the first innings of the Kanpur Test against New Zealand was full of off-side drives against Tim Southee’s outswinger – at a time when he was running through India’s middle and lower order – and Ashwin may have been attempting the same sort of thing against Ngidi at Newlands.
But he can occupy the crease, too – as he showed so memorably at the SCG last year – and with Pant scoring fluently at the other end, he may reflect that this may have been a more prudent approach.
As it happened, those three Ngidi wickets transformed the game, and India, who had looked on course to set a target of at least 250, ended up setting one of 212.
“When we say batting line-up we obviously add the lower middle order also to it,” Kohli said in his press conference. “It’s not just focusing on four guys or five guys, it’s till No. 7, potentially 8 as well, to make sure that we get the runs required to be put on the board, so that’s a collective responsibility I’m speaking of, and everyone knows it.
“Everyone knows that they haven’t quite stepped up and put in the performances that would have driven us into more comprehensive or dominating positions, and that’s basically what I understood as to why we ended up losing the two Test matches, because collectively again, we just lost too many wickets in one session, that we have done a few times in the past as well.”
While Ashwin and Thakur both contributed useful scores during this series, India will know they are both essentially No. 8s at this stage of their careers, and the two of them together don’t quite make up for the absence of Jadeja.