The crumbling Centurion fortress needs to be rebuilt

INDIA TOUR IN SOUTH AFRICA, 2021-22

“Keep going … keep going … keep going …” – It was a procession of wickets on day 3 © AFP

“Where are the corpses?” The question from a passerby put a faint smile on the face of the figure sitting on a chair in a corridor in Centurion. At least one would think it did. Because you could not see their face or much else of them. If they did not smile, they might have heard it too many times already.

They and their colleague on the other hand were dressed top to toe in white PPE; complete with caps and gloves and single vibrant blue stripes running front and back, from top to bottom and from side to side on their costumes. The only thing visible through a clear plastic visor was their face. The bit of their face that was not covered by a mask, that is. They have been a part of the extraordinary aftermath of this series since the bubble was established.

It was not a scene you would expect to encounter on a cricket ground. But these are unprecedented times. And the gallows humor was not misplaced. We have all seen people in this now grim performance, mostly on a screen, as they take care of the victims of the lousy virus in the far corners of the world.

Fortunately, those in Centurion are there for no more morbid purpose than to serve as couriers between the real world and the disinfected monastery intended to keep players and officials out of danger. On Tuesday, for example, one of the ghostly crew was urged to refill the coffee beans in India’s locker room. This meant entering the “red zone”, as it calls itself on signs attached to the skeletal barricades that mark its boundaries.

That is not the only sign that Centurion has changed. On the grassy shores that surround two-thirds of the earth lie a dozen brave molded plastic figures; identical in shape, different in color and taller even than Marco Jansen. They step forward smartly with their left foot and lean into their crotch. Their left hand grips the edge of a tall hat, their right grips a walking stick that is angled sharply backwards. Their fur tails flap behind them in the wind like a fishtail. They are part of a fire activation that whiskey drinkers do not need more clues to identify. Another joke: you can advertise alcohol on the ground, but according to the Covid-19 rules, you can not buy a drink there. Not that there are any spectators in the stands to buy a beer or anything, and no vendors to buy from.

But a handful of souls have gathered in a pair of the private suits that are allowed to open. The most stubborn among them spent much of Tuesday morning welcoming Lungi Ngidi back to the fine leg boundary in appreciation of yet another wicket. He took 3/26 in the seven overs, he bowled unchanged from West Lane End to finish the inning with 6/71. From Hennops River End, Kagiso Rabada threw the other six overs needed to repel India for 327, taking 3/21 in his magic and 3/72 in innings. Both put in the kind of relentless, brisk, uncompromising shifts that are characteristic of South African fast bowling. And that was largely missing from the attack’s performance on Sunday, except Ngidi. On Tuesday, Ngidi and Rabada teamed up, for 55 runs in 15.3 overs, all seven wickets still standing after Monday’s game were lost due to rain.

South Africans looking for signs, after an unconvincing first day when India reached 272/3, that their team had not lost their moorings would have been reassured. Like Donald and De Villiers, Pollock and Ntini, and Steyn and Philander before them, Rabada and Ngidi had the knowledge, courage and heart to pull things back.

Then again, this is Centurion, where South Africa have won 21 of their 26 tests and lost only two – one of them a constructed England victory in January 2000, when a pile of cash and a leather jacket bought Hansie Cronje’s deal to try to produce a result after more than three of the first four days had been lost due to rain.

There are no ramparts or drawbridges in these areas, although moats occur spontaneously when thunderstorms hit the parched ground, and in the right light, the concrete may look medieval warning. But Centurion is no less a fortress because of the lack of these details. Dominate South Africa here? Only one team has done that and they had a fiery kite called Mitchell Johnson who took 7/68 and 5/59 to throw Australia to victory with 281 races in February 2014. Good luck India …

“Keep going … keep going … keep going …” Hooked on that lyrics, the whiskey sponsor’s jingle sounded every time a new dough went to the fold. But it would have been just as appropriate to play it for every departing dough. The closest we came to it was when the incoming Quinton de Kock crossed the border a few meters before the newly announced Rassie van der Dussen had completed the trip in reverse. So “Keep going … keep going … keep going …” appeared premature but appropriate.

Only while Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock stood firm for 134 balls at their stand at 72 did the South Africans seem to retain the game as a competition. Bavumas 52, his 16th half-century and the product of patience and 161 minutes and 103 balls, were his umpire match posts; some of despite. But there was not enough where the solid effort came from and South Africa was sacked for 197 – the first time they have been ruled out for fewer than 200 in Centurion.

On a course that started spongy and has hardened to a surface that offers everyone something – and which bequeathed 18 wickets for 268 runs on Tuesday – India’s bowlers were superb. No one more than Mohammad Shami, whose mastery of line, length and nail movement made him as close to unplayable as any bowler should be allowed to venture. In five overs after lunch, four of them pointless, he took 2/9. He was as good as that, and his final reward of 5/44 makes him sound.

The first blow was struck by Jasprit Bumrah, who got Dean Elgar taken back with a delivery that was easily good enough also to catch the South African captain in front or bowl him. India were so extensive at the top that they barely missed Bumrah, who left the pitch in the 11th over after turning an ankle in his follow-up. He did not bowl again until the 61st. The rest of the attack took 6/162 while he was disposed of.

One of the more steadfast members of the lower half of the order was debutant Marco Jansen, who made a nuggety 19 and shared 37 with Rabada – the second largest stand in the round. Jansen, who had an indifferent first day as he went wicketless in 17 overs that cost 61 runs. But he got Bumrah caught on the third drop to finish India’s first innings, and was on a hat-trick when Mayank Agarwal removed his first delivery of the second tomb to De Kock.

“He had a slightly tough start to his international career,” Bavuma said. “He admitted that the emotions and nerves got the better of him. Today, as we saw with his batting, he was much more confident and the confidence we know he has shone through.” That’s the kind of character South Africa need when looking for the remaining nine wickets without allowing India to build their lead, currently 146, out of sight.

“What has happened has happened,” Bavuma said. “The intensity we brought out there with the ball today, that’s what we’re going to demand.” Not only to avert a defeat in this battle, but to rebuild the currently crumbling fortress of Centurion. To do that they have to go in the right direction and keep going … keep going … keep going …

© Cricbuzz

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