If you want to know just how much South Africa wanted to beat India in this series, watch Morne Morkel‘s catch to dismiss Parthiv Patel.
Morkel, who usually has the grace of a new-born giraffe with his long limbs and awkward co-ordination, sprinted to meet Parthiv’s hook and then used a combination of core strength and balance to slide on his hips and hold his arms up, preventing his elbows from hitting the ground and the ball from bouncing out.
On realising what he had done, Morkel took off like Imran Tahir, but towards his team-mates – unlike the spinner, who runs away – and then threw in a funky goose-step celebration to boot. He was mobbed by the rest, who knew that they were halfway to a series win. India were 65 for 5 and folding fast.
If you still want to know how much South Africa wanted to beat India in this series, watch AB de Villiers’ catch to dismiss Rohit Sharma, who top-edged a hook to fine leg. De Villiers raced in, slid low and picked up the ball as it died on him, cleanly and quickly, and then got up to mock drop-kick it. He was also mobbed by his team-mates, who had earned themselves an extended first session by reducing India to 141 for 8 in the morning and were on the brink of victory.
Which one illustrated South Africa’s desire more? “Morne’s catch for me is far superior,” Faf du Plessis argued. “AB is a brilliant fielder. To get Morne to run like that and take a catch like that is what SuperSport’s ‘Did you see that?’ is made of.”
Jokes aside, South Africa’s fielding effort, which also included three run-outs, is a microcosm of something bigger, something that is changing in the team.
Since Ottis Gibson‘s appointment as coach in September, there is a noticeably more aggressive attitude being employed in every department.
In their selection, South Africa no longer seek the security of a seventh specialist batsmen but demand more from the top six and opt for four frontline quicks (or three and an allrounder, as was the case against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe) to accompany the spinner. That may not always work, especially if Quinton de Kock does not start scoring more runs soon, but at home, in conditions which suit them – this SuperSport Park pitch being an exception – it is a proactive strategy.
In their batting, South Africa are more urgent in seeking out run-scoring opportunities. “Get the runs before the ball gets you,” is Gibson’s thinking. That also may not always work – du Plessis’ blockathon in this Test is a clear example – but it has resulted in the South Africans sacrificing individual glory for a collective effort. They don’t have a hundred between them in the two Tests played in this series, but they have victories in both. “Everyone has chipped in,” du Plessis said.
None more importantly than de Villiers, whose 65 and 35 at Newlands and 80 in the second innings at SuperSport Park were vital to setting up victory, but still South Africa feel they no longer depend on him alone.
“The runs that AB scored in this Test was very important but the partnership is what I look at,” du Plessis said. “Yes, AB looks like the superstar from an Indian perspective but guys like Dean Elgar, on this wicket… The rest of the team needs to understand that there is another role to play and that’s where you fight and you grind for as long as possible because the longer you grind, the weaker the opposition gets.”
Elgar contributed 61 in a third-wicket stand of 141 with de Villiers after South Africa’s second innings started with them at 3 for 2. Though de Villiers changed the tempo, du Plessis credited Elgar, and to a lesser extent himself, with keeping the innings together and allowing the team to take the game away from India. “We took it so far above that point where they just collapsed this morning because the runs were just too much,” du Plessis said.
Naturally, du Plessis acknowledged de Villiers as a “special player” who has “got the ability to counterattack, the same as Virat Kohli”. The difference, according to it Plessis, is that “India is very reliant on Virat to score runs”. Du Plessis didn’t say it, but India appear equally needful of Kohli to set the tone. South Africa do not leave that to one person anymore.
Their fielding is the first evidence of that. While always an athletically strong side, South Africa have stepped up through the appointment of a fielding coach, another Gibson initiative. “What I’ve enjoyed is that we have made fielding a responsibility to someone,” du Plessis added. “That’s something we haven’t had in the past.”
Justin Ontong, who had no prior coaching experience and was still playing as a franchise cricketer a few weeks before he began the job, is the man in charge of fielding and du Plessis believes he has made a massive impact.
“With his [Ontong] credentials as a fielder, he will offer advice to guys who don’t understand what it would mean to anticipate the ball, what sort of positions you get into,” du Plessis said. “When you have someone with his fielding skills it is always easier to listen, especially if he works with the fast bowlers – the guys who generally don’t spend a lot of time on fielding practice because their skills are bowling.”
But if you really wanted to know how much South Africa wanted to beat India in this series, you needed to be at SuperSport Park to feel the reaction to Lungi Ngidi‘s maiden five-for. Morkel took a much simpler catch at mid-on to end Mohammed Shami’s cheeky knock and there was nothing but pure joy. Ngidi’s smile was on full display, he held his arms aloft and his eyes shone.
At the end of that over, Ngidi returned to fine leg, in front of the sparsely populated grandstand. There were only 1727 people at SuperSport Park – a fair number for a Wednesday morning on the day the schools reopened – and maybe a few hundred in that stand but they sounded like several thousand more. This was their man, a Titans player on his home ground, playing Test cricket like an experienced pro. They were proud, as they should be.
Ngidi was not yet a professional cricketer when South Africa toured India at the end of 2015 and was far from national selectors’ minds even though, at the time, depth was their biggest concern. South Africa lost their three senior-most seamers to injury on that tour – Morkel early on and Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander during the Tests – but they also lost much more: de Villiers’ commitment albeit temporarily (he returned home and during the England series expressed concerns over workload before a 23-month hiatus from the longest format), their No. 1 ranking, their pride and their self-belief.
It has taken the newer generation, the likes of Kagiso Rabada, who became the world’s top-ranked Test bowler after just 24 Tests, to bring the confidence back. Aiden Markram, the Under-19 World Cup winning captain who has scored two centuries in five Tests, has also done that. Temba Bavuma, who dug South Africa out of holes everywhere in Australia and New Zealand, has too. And now Ngidi, in only his 10th first-class match, has added his name to the list.
South Africa are no longer a side falling apart, as they were just a few months ago in England, they are a side who have pieced themselves together and they need to look no further than this series win as proof.
“It was tough for us in India,” du Plessis said. “Personally and as a team we struggled there, and mentally it took a toll on us, even after that series. So the guys were extremely motivated for this series to put that right.”
Now that they have, if you want to know how much South Africa want to beat India 3-0 in this Test series, here’s the answer: “Big time. It was the same when we were playing Australia [in ODIs in October 2016] and we were 4-0 up,” du Plessis said. “It’s an amazing opportunity – not a lot of South African teams have had it. It makes us even hungrier to go out there as a team, so we’re really looking forward to the next Test.”