CAPE TOWN, South Africa — South Africa beat top-ranked India by 72 runs in the first test Jan. 8, bowling out the best side in the world for just 135 on the fourth day at Newlands.
India’s defeat on a seam-friendly surface in Cape Town underlined the doubts over the No. 1 side’s ability to win on green strips away from home, although neither sides’ batsmen really profited on the testing track.
South Africa seamer Vernon Philander sealed a low-scoring game with his 6-42 in the second innings, hastening India’s demise when he took three wickets in four balls to end the game.
India was chasing a target of just 208 to win, but came unstuck against South Africa’s quick bowlers on the kind of fast, bouncy pitch the Indians would have been expecting to be tested on in South Africa. India made 209 in the first innings, while South Africa scored 286 and 130.
“We need to show more character with the bat, there’s no question about that,” India captain Virat Kohli said.
Philander’s career-best figures in India’s second innings were backed up by two wickets each from fellow quicks Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada. South Africa was also a bowler down, with Dale Steyn ruled out for the rest of his comeback series by a left foot injury he sustained on day two at Newlands.
India is ranked No. 1 in tests by a wide margin after nine straight series wins, but only one of those series victories came outside Asia. Six of them were in India.
Kohli’s departure in Cape Town — one of Philander’s six wickets — began a slide of four quick wickets before tea as India crashed to 82-7. Ravichandran Ashwin made 37 to hold up the South Africans. But his dismissal, also to Philander, set off another collapse and India went from 131-7 to 135 all out.
Philander took two wickets off the last two balls of the game to end it as South Africa’s decision to pick four fast bowlers and sacrifice a batsman on a tough batting strip ultimately paid off, although it was a close call after South Africa was shot out for just 130 in its second innings at the start of the day.
Captain Faf du Plessis referred to the tactic as a bit of a gamble.
“We’re a team that’s prepared to take risks to win games of cricket,” du Plessis said.
Fighting to justify its No. 1 ranking, and playing its closest challenger in the rankings, India faces more fast surfaces in Centurion, near Pretoria, and Johannesburg in the last two tests. Even with Steyn out, Philander, Morkel, and Rabada form a formidable pace attack for South Africa.
“They create relentless pressure,” Kohli said. “It’s something we have to counter. Maybe we have to come out and be more positive.”
Rohit Sharma was bowled comprehensively soon after Kohli went — and an over after, he was dropped in the outfield.
Allrounder Hardik Pandya, who top-scored with 93 in India’s first innings, then was out for 1 as India lost those three prize wickets for six runs in less than three overs.
Wriddhiman Saha was out lbw for 8 to take the teams to tea.
After tea, Ashwin’s resistance was broken by Philander, with wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock taking a sharp catch standing up to the stumps. Mohammed Shami and last man Jasprit Bumrah were undone in successive balls by typical Philander outswingers to seal victory.
Ultimately, South Africa’s bowlers played the match-winning role in a game where the momentum swung back and forth wildly between the two teams.
India removed eight South African batsmen for just 65 runs in the first session, with South Africa’s own collapse in the morning forcing injured fast bowler Steyn to come out to bat to try to prolong the innings.
South Africa, and Steyn, limped to 130, leaving India with an accessible victory target of 208 and realistic hopes of just a third test win in South Africa since 1992. India has never won a series in South Africa, losing five of the six it has played.
South Africa started the day on 65-2 and with a lead of 142, but Hashim Amla’s dismissal in the second over of the day began a procession of 18 wickets from both teams in the two and a half sessions of play.