Epic series and underdog fairytales have occurred at an unusual frequency over the last 12 months of Test cricket, but South Africa's comeback from 1-0 down to beat a formidable India side 2-1 was special even in that context. A day after the series ended, Firdose Moonda and Karthik Krishnaswamy gathered to collect their thoughts and make sense of what they had just witnessed.
KK: Firstly, what an achievement for South Africa. It feels like a long time ago, but please set the scene so we can remember what South African cricket looked like at the start of the series.
FM: In short, South African cricket was a mess as this summer approached. Although the men's team had performed above expectation at the T20 World Cup, and had won a Test series in the West Indies, there are several issues hovering around them. There's an enquiry into why Enoch Nkwe, the assistant coach, resigned. There's an investigation into head coach Mark Boucher's (and DOC Graeme Smith's) conduct after the SJN report came out. On the eve of the series, South Africa's leading wicket-taker in Tests in 2021, Anrich Nortje, was ruled out with a hip injury. And after the Centurion Test, Quinton de Kock, probably their only out and out batting superstar, retired from Test cricket. And that's just a small snapshot. Don't forget that India also brought their strongest side, and especially their strongest pace attack ever to tour South Africa here. So you were expecting them to sweep it, weren't you?
KK: I don't know about sweeping it, but I certainly thought India were favourites, especially after the Nortje injury. But it was a reminder, again, of how difficult home advantage can be to overcome, and of South Africa's culture of fast bowling. Duanne Olivier missing the first Test also seemed like a huge blow, but he didn't even create that much of an impact after he came back. Instead, we had a guy making his debut and ending the series as its second-highest wicket-taker. India may have brought their strongest pace attack to South Africa, but in their own conditions, South Africa had an attack that was just that little bit better, even without Nortje (and even though they've lost Steyn, Morkel and Philander so recently). Did you expect Marco Jansen to have such an impact?
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FM: Honestly, no. Jansen was a wildcard and I had heard before the series that he was being considered specifically for his height and the bounce he would generate and of course, for the left-arm variation. The way he started reminded me very much of how Lutho Sipamla started last summer when his first 11 overs cost 66 runs and then he took 10 wickets for 101 in the rest of the series. Jansen was incredibly nervous in the first Test and also came in for unfair scrutiny because of how he was selected.
Remember that Olivier was due to play but had not recovered enough from Covid-19 and the convener of selectors hid that information from the media. So people were led to believe that Jansen was preferred over Olivier and that led to criticism. In the end, it seems Jansen could have been preferred because he was fantastic. He has the most wickets by a South African in a debut series of three matches and has finished second to Kagiso Rabada (20 wickets). Lungi Ngidi (15) is third and only then do we get to Mohammed Shami (14). Given India's bowling strength, it seems strange that South Africa dominated in that way. Are India's batting concerns more serious than we may think?
KK: I'm going to get a bit of flak for this, but I maintain that India's poor returns with the bat are largely down to how good the bowling was and how challenging the conditions were. And that's been the case through most of their recent series. What could Ajinkya Rahane have done about either of the deliveries he got at Newlands, for example? Having said that, I can see why India might possibly look past him or even Cheteshwar Pujara - he was involved in two crucial partnerships in back-to-back innings, with Rahane in Jo'burg and with Virat Kohli in Cape Town, but ended the series with an average of 20.66. It's not because they're batting poorly as such, but because there's so many other batters knocking on the door.
You mentioned Jansen's height and bounce, and that was eventually the difference between the two sides. India bowled really well, but they lacked that factor. The pitches had more movement early on, but quickened up as the matches progressed and bounce became more of a factor in the second innings. And we saw both at the Wanderers and at Newlands that India's bowling looked less threatening than South Africa's in the second innings after matching - or even slightly outperforming - them in the first innings.
Rabada ended up as the highest wicket-taker on both sides. How pleased were you to see that? Over the last two years or so, it's felt like he'd fallen off the radar slightly and everyone was talking up the likes of Pat Cummins and Jasprit Bumrah and not mentioning Rabada among the world's best fast bowlers.
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FM: The feeling I've got from Rabada over the last few summers is almost that he had switched off for too long. He tended to perform well in bursts (think Australia 2018 and that incident with Steven Smith) but then also had periods of time when he was much less effective, struggling to find rhythm and swing. He has a lot of interests outside of cricket such as running his own sports agency and music, and I had started to wonder if he was maybe drifting a touch. We know Dean Elgar spoke to him after the first Test, where he went wicketless on the first day, and though we don't know what was said, it seems to have been about Rabada taking more responsibility for his role as the spearhead. Maybe that means bowling more overs - and he did, more than anyone else - longer spells or being more consistent. He stepped up in a big way and he deserves his place among those names.
I was more pleased to see the development of Ngidi. He came into this match having not played competitive cricket for five months and there was a lot of talk about his fitness. Ngidi was known as a bowler who can hit the deck hard but in this series, he showed he can pitch it up and find swing as well.
KK: It's the way of Test cricket now. It's a sort of perverse compliment that teams pay India when they host them. As they're well within their rights to do, they prepare pitches that completely negate spin (and India recognised this and played four fast bowlers both in England and here, and used their lone spinner very sparingly). It's not that South African pitches can't bring spin into the game. Lasith Embuldeniya got a second-innings five-for in that Durban game where Kusal Perera scored that extraordinary 153*. It isn't that Embuldeniya bowled better than Ashwin - or even Maharaj - did in this series, but that he actually had something to work with. I would love to see pitches around the world with more balance between bat, pace and spin, but I can see why that isn't the case. I feel for Maharaj too, because he played all three Tests and barely bowled, and I guess you'll see quite a lot of that over this Championship cycle given the points penalties for slow over rates.
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FM: And in many ways, there's a lot of justification for picking Maharaj (or Ashwin), right? There's always the chance the opposition line-up will be 300 for 4 and you need a bowler who can hold an end. There's also the chance the match will go into the fifth day, and there'll be enough deterioration for them to get something out of it. We didn't really see that here, but I still think all three surfaces made for really engrossing cricket. Run scoring was tough, so we saw just one hundred in the series. I don't even think you can measure performances in South Africa by hundreds scored. Did you enjoy seeing these types of surfaces?
KK: Absolutely, especially when the teams are so well-matched. With all we've said above about the height and bounce advantage South Africa had, this could easily have gone 2-1 to India, or maybe even 3-0. And if India hadn't won the toss at Centurion and if South Africa hadn't had their one bad day with the ball on the first day of the series, it could even have been 3-0 to South Africa. It was that kind of series. There wasn't one session that lacked intensity - no waits for declarations etc. Given that sort of intensity, the performance of Keegan Petersen, batting at No. 3 with not a whole lot of experience behind him, was something else. I would have given the Player of the Series award to a bowler, but I was thrilled by Petersen's emergence. I thought he had a bit of luck (and what batter doesn't need some luck when conditions are like this?), especially with some of his drives away from the body, but the quality of his batting is so clear to see. He's so compact, he's got shots all around the ground, and - a miracle in the year 2022 - he actually taps his bat instead of holding it up like a baseballer!
FM: He's the story of the series for me. Petersen was actually part of South Africa's Test squad when Boucher took over in the 2019-20 summer and I remember watching him working with Jacques Kallis in the nets (that's when we were still allowed to go and watch nets). He had to wait 18 months to make his debut and when he finally did in the West Indies, the opening pair couldn't stay together for long enough to get into double-figures. That wasn't a great outing for him, and neither was his time at SuperSport Park, but his three fifties have really allowed him to make the No.3 role his own. His technique, as you say, is classy but I'm also impressed by his temperament. He just doesn't seem to get too rattled (except maybe when he can feel a hundred looming and is in a hurry to get there) and unlike Aiden Markram, he covered his offstump well.
KK: For me, Markram's run of form was exactly like Pujara's or Rahane's. Not much he could have done about it.
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FM: I am very concerned about Markram. He averages under 30 in his last nine Tests, after averaging 55.55 in his first 10 and although he is one of the classiest players in the line-up, I think he's got to go for now. I agree with you that he got some unplayable deliveries but I think this is a longer-term issue. Markram seems to be wilting under the weight of expectation. So many have tipped him to be great, even to be the next captain, and it may all just be a bit too much. There's some talk of moving him into the middle order but I wouldn't displace Rassie van der Dussen - who didn't score many runs but gutsed it out - or Temba Bavuma, who also is without that much-talked-about second Test century but looked very good. (Those drives!) and took South Africa to two momentous victories.
We didn't really get the chance to see Kyle Verreynne much but it seems he has some things to work on behind the stumps, but speaking of wicket-keepers, how fun is Rishabh Pant?
KK: He's an absolute pleasure to watch and listen to (at one point, the stump mic caught him saying "cutie bowling" to Ashwin), and what more can you ask from a cricketer? He's not just a phenomenal talent but also plays with an infectious smile. That hundred in Cape Town was remarkable, and it was particularly remarkable - I felt - because in the early part of his innings, he just seemed to be batting normally. It was a difficult innings to write about, because it needed the context of everyone else struggling so much to tell you why it was so special. India may have lost, but I rate it as Pant's best Test innings, even better than the knock in the Gabba chase or his hundred in Ahmedabad against England. And it came right after he'd been lampooned all over the place for the shot he played in Jo'burg. You mentioned Bavuma, and I thought he looked absolutely impregnable at times, which is so hard to do in a series dominated by the bowlers. He was never going to score that second Test hundred in this series, but it continues to puzzle me that he hasn't got it yet. And what about Dean Elgar, eh?
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FM: Perhaps not the obvious pick as captain and I maintain that if we compile a list of his quotes, we would develop South Africa's 12th official language (after the win yesterday, he said the team was put under the sword which I think is a combination of being put to the sword and being under the pump) but he is developing into exactly the leader this team needs. Elgar scores runs when he needs to, and it's never pretty but he is also becoming a mentor, cheerleader and harsh talker. He explained that he is pushing for a collective effort over individual actions. "The team's way is the only way," he said, and that he has regular meetings where he reminds the players of the standard he expects from them as internationals. I know he would have liked to play shorter formats but I think it's to South Africa's benefit that he doesn't. His focus on red-ball cricket is going to help rebuild this Test team.
From here, South Africa go to New Zealand, host Bangladesh and then have a winter tour to England. By the end of that, I imagine we will have a pretty good idea of how they will fare in the World Test Championship this time around. And what about India?
KK: I genuinely think South Africa have a shot at the final. Their attack will compete in New Zealand and England for sure, and in Australia where they're due to play a three-Test series. They've always tended to do well in those countries, historically. Plus two home series against West Indies and Bangladesh that you would expect them to win, notwithstanding the miracles both those teams have pulled off away from home in the last year. India have a pair of home series against Sri Lanka and Australia, and a tour of Bangladesh and that one remaining Test in England. With Pakistan also enjoying a good run and having a pretty favourable home/away split, it's going to be pretty tight all round.
More than the WTC itself, I think India will go back and look at a couple of things: possibly think of the long-term transition that their batting will undergo, and also look for a tall fast bowler. Ishant Sharma is that, you'd think, but he's become more of a pitch-it-up swing bowler now, and he's gone from being one of India's three main quicks overseas to slipping behind Umesh Yadav in the queue.
And speaking of Elgar-speak, you'll remember this gem from his pre-series press conference: "Be it as it may, it is what it is." Where would you put this series win among South Africa's high points in recent years?
FM: This definitely rates as South Africa's most important win in the last 10 years. Beating Australia at home in 2018 was special but it feels as though this has come in much more difficult circumstances with a team that very few would have expected to perform this well.
I think back to when South Africa took the mace off England in 2012 (and that is TEN years ago now) and that team and you can really see how much restructuring South Africa have had to do. Elgar made his debut in the series after that and since then, every year, at least one big name has retired. South Africa have lost 14 match-winners in the last 10 years and Elgar has seen every one of them go. So he has really built this squad from the ground up and if they can stay together for the next five or so years, we could have a really special, and importantly, inclusive South African side.
We should not lose sight of the fact that is the most transformed the Test team has ever been and all the players (of colour and white) are contributing immensely. South Africa went through some very tough times, deep introspection, ripping off band aids and much, much pain to get here but if we end up with is a representative team that wins, it was worth it.