It was not quicker, bouncier or scarier than Newlands but the uncharacteristic SuperSport Park pitch has not drawn any criticism from the men who have to play on it. At least, not yet.
With turn from day one, this usually spin-free surface has done the one thing captain Faf du Plessis did not want and has already brought India’s spinner R Ashwin into the game. Ashwin’s three wickets have already had some impact but exactly how much of a say both he and Keshav Maharaj will have on this game may ultimately affect the assessment of groundsman Bryan Bloy’s maiden Test strip.
“I feel the wicket did spin a bit but it was not outrageous. It was very slow and there was bounce, sometimes people watching the game mistake bounce for big spin,” Ashwin said.
The bounce will be particularly important to the hosts, who see that as being key in allowing them to exploit home advantage. “In terms of bowling, we have got taller bowlers who are used to the conditions and it would be interesting to see how the Indians bat and make an assessment,” Aiden Markram, who top-scored with 94 said. “We’ve got taller bowlers than what the Indians have. That is the only difference I see.”
Markram plays his domestic cricket for Titans and knows the Centurion pitch well. He admitted this strip was slower than usual. “It was a little bit different. Generally, there is good pace and bounce. It is still there but it lacked the extra pace that the usual wicket at Supersport is like,” Markram said. “But there is just about enough in it for both batsmen and bowlers. It is a wicket where the contest is always happening. Ideally, we would have liked to have it quicker but I don’t think it’s something bad.”
Markram admitted South Africa “didn’t expect there would be so much assistance for him (Ashwin)”, which made him a tricky prospect first up. “He was difficult to face but he is difficult to face on a flat wicket as well. It will be interesting to see if the pitch does get harder or if it will continue to spin or if it spun like that because of grass covering,” Markram said.
Pre-match, both teams considered playing all-pace attacks with Ashwin expecting to be benched until the eve of the match. “Two days from the game, it looked like we are going to play an all-seam attack. And then when we walked into the ground yesterday, it was white in colour, the grass was coming off. All of a sudden I really had to pull myself back and think I am in the game now,” Ashwin said. “Today morning when we came to the ground, it looked like a wicket that was really flat and had to have a spinner in the game. Personally, from my side of it, I was very happy that the grass was taken off, if not I think it would have been all-seam attack.”
South Africa were also seriously considering leaving Maharaj out and going all guns blazing with a five-pronged pack. In hindsight, that would have been a grave error, even though Bloy told ESPNcricinfo that he expects the pitch to quicken up on the second and third days, something Ashwin agreed with. “I found it to be a bit damp and it was very slow. The new ball isn’t doing a lot actually and the pitch is actually flattening out and spin is going out of the surface a lot more. I think days two and three will be a very good batting day,” Ashwin said.
Because this surface has elements of the unknown, it’s difficult to tell what a good first-innings total will be but Markam would like to see South Africa get at least 70 more runs before bowling at SuperSport Park. “Anything above 350 would be good but we would like to push to 400,” he said.