“It was a glimpse into South Africa’s middle-order future but also a sharp reality check reminding that there is work left to do to regain the strength of yore”
It wasn’t exactly a cultural revolution but it seemed like Johannesburg was witnessing a baton hand-over right in front of their eyes on day one of the third Test against Pakistan. Faf du Plessis was out suspended and Hashim Amla, a waning force for a while now, played second-fiddle as the triumvirate of Aiden Markram, Zubayr Hamza and Theunis de Bruyn announced their arrival in thumping fashion.
Markram did his bit with a slew of eye-catching drives creamed out of the sweetest spot of the bat, most notably an immaculate one off Mohammad Amir in the 23rd over. Zubayr Hamza, nerveless and undaunted on debut, launched into Shadab Khan with a full-fledged smash off the back foot over cow corner. Theunis de Bruyn with a stunning straight drive off Mohammad Abbas displayed his innate talents too.
What was notable, though, was how the likes of Hashim Amla, despite a hard-working yet strewn-with-false-shots 98-ball 41, Temba Bavuma, Dean Elgar and Quinton de Kock went missing as gen-X of South African cricket carried them forward. As Michael Holding described on air, “it was a wonderful batting day,” and when Markram went about his merciless slaughtering of Pakistan’s medium-pacers, who lacked the pace for this kind of a surface, it seemed we were in for a long batting day.
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Holding even called for Shadab Khan to be given more overs as it seemed like the spinner would be most successful on this surface. That coming from the legendary fast bowler who termed the pitch ‘not really ideal’ was a huge call and Pakistan responded. Answering his call immediately, Shadab removed a resolute Amla soon after Markram had edged behind off Faheem Ashraf down the leg-side. It brought together the most unlikely of South Africa’s batting pairs – Theunis de Bruyn and debutant Zubayr Hamza.
Neither are flashy, flamboyant cricketers of the modern era but both possess averages over 45 in first-class cricket and show the temperament and doggedness that the senior pro batsmen have lacked in recent times. It is perhaps why the selectors were unhesitant to pick them in the first place. De Bruyn’s forward stride against Amir and co. was notably good. Despite the bumper threat prevailing, he took confident steps forward and played with assured hands. The only time he perhaps misjudged was when Amir produced a quick bouncer out of nowhere to smack him on the arms. Next ball, impressively, de Bruyn was up with his long stride forward yet again and defended right in front of his eyes.
The classic technique was nearly overshadowed by an uber-confident Hamza at the other end, milking some drives and smothering the spinner with disdain when he landed short. Taking a cue from Hamza’s power-packed shots off Shadab, de Bruyn took on the leggie too and the partnership was up and running at the pace Markram had kicked off the innings with.
At tea, South Africa were 226 for 3, well and truly on top, and perhaps a tad over-ecstatic because their drive was propelled by two batsmen earmarked to hold up their middle-order in the future. 118 runs had come in the session between lunch and tea and despite two big wickets, South Africa had run away with the game and Pakistan looked listless and lacked the zing that they had with Yasir Shah in the side.
Two balls after tea and you knew the gen-X batsmen had their task cut out. Mohammad Abbas was nibbling the ball all over and Hamza promptly edged one to the keeper only for him to shell it. By the end of the over, he had nearly trapped de Bruyn in front and a solid over from Amir nearly escaped one’s eyes as the Abbas-end provided more excitement.
Abbas, in UAE rhythm by now, wasted no time sending back de Bruyn, the batsman clearly all at sea against the guile of the seamer multiple times in the innings. A wicket had to give way at some point of time in the battle and Abbas ensured it came before de Bruyn, impressive otherwise, ran away with the game.
Bavuma, elegant and pleasing to the eye, opened his account with a cracking shot off Abbas but he had little time to settled down with Amir doubling up with Abbas and generating reverse swing. He had the South African befuddled in an over where the edge was beaten twice and the inside edge nearly shattered the stumps. Off the final ball Amir had his man as Bavuma, clearly in two minds by now, edged the reverse swinging ball to Sarfaraz behind.
What started out as a mild collapse turned into a flurry of wickets as one brought another and then another. Before you knew it, Hamza, Philander, Rabada and de Kock had disappeared leaving the last pair to rack up the 350 that appeared inevitable at one stage. Obviously, the partnership brought zilch runs as South Africa, from 238/4 collapse to 262 all out, losing their last six wickets, ironically all of them to pace, for 24 runs.
The South African middle-order appeared spruced up even in the absence of du Plessis as the three expected to carry forward a rich legacy, bullied Pakistan through lunch and tea, but all it took was some good ol’ reverse swing to bring Pakistan back. When it unravelled it happened all too quickly for the youngsters to digest, their hard work and efforts thrown to the gutter in the space of 15 overs. It was a glimpse into South Africa’s middle-order future but also a sharp reality check reminding that there is work left to do to regain the strength of yore.