India 289 for 7 (Dhawan 109, Kohli 75, Ngidi 2-52) v South Africa
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Bowlers cramping Shikhar Dhawan for room is normal in any form of cricket. His abandoning that trademark, off-side dominant game and still managing to be a threat? Not so much. A century on his 100th ODI needs no added frills, not after it came with the addendum that he was the first Indian to do so, but sending out a message that he isn’t as one-dimensional as he seems must have felt sweet. But will it be enough to win the game?
South Africa’s target ended up being 290, when 320-plus appeared more likely, thanks to the bowlers persevering on a Wanderers pitch that offered the two things they have been crying out for all series – pace and bounce. They spent the first 30 overs of the game watching inside edges trickle past the stumps and outside edges never catching up with the ball. But their bad luck dissipated, almost concurrent with the rain clouds that brought lightning and thunder to the Wanderers.
A delay of nearly an hour upset India’s momentum to such an extent that their top-scorer ended up spooning a catch to mid-off seven balls after play resumed. No sooner had Dhawan walked back that Ajinkya Rahane pulled a short ball straight to deep midwicket. Suddenly two new batsmen were at the crease: Shreyas Iyer, playing his first innings on this tour and MS Dhoni, who needs time early in his innings to be properly destructive.
South Africa recognised their chance, which was a miracle in itself considering Virat Kohli has had them under his thumb this series. He was outstanding on Saturday too, but his wicket for 75 in the 32nd over, minutes before the weather soured changed the game.
Kagiso Rabada had a lower-middle order in front of him. And he turned so very hostile. He didn’t care that he held an older ball in his hand, didn’t care that it wasn’t zipping through as before, he kept digging it hard into the pitch, cramping batsmen and hitting them on the body. His final five overs – bowled from the 33rd to the 49th – cost only 28 runs and yielded only one boundary.
Rabada also took out India’s hitter Hardik Pandya – with ample help from Aiden Markram. South Africa’s stand-in captain was at cover when a full-blooded slash came his way. He took a split second to position himself, then leapt back, stuck his right hand up and pulled off a screamer that would have had the man he was standing in for – Faf du Plessis – nodding with approval. With Rabada in charge of the final 10 overs, India could manage only 59 runs. Even Dhoni could manage only seven runs off 10 balls in the head-to-head. South Africa would go into the dressing room believing they can keep their unbeaten streak on pink-day matches intact, but would nevertheless be wary of the monstrous threat India’s wristspinners pose.
Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav would be doubly motivated by the fact that a win in Johannesburg would seal India’s first ODI series win in this country. They also wouldn’t want to see Dhawan’s innings relegated to a footnote. Not after he had withstood some very probing bowling.
South Africa had not allowed him any runs with the cut shot until the 43rd delivery he faced. He went for the shot often enough, and was lucky to avoid chopping onto his stumps, but eventually decided that there were other ways to score and he was good enough to exploit them. At one point, he was 85 off only 75 balls, with flicks reminiscent of Sanath Jayasuriya and drives – the first one especially – that could fit into a Matthew Hayden highlight reel.
Dhawan’s ability to rise to a challenge isn’t new – he struck a blistering century on Test debut, he made a target of 407 seem achievable in Auckland as he made a highly-refined century. He demolished South Africa in a World Cup match at the MCG. But South Africa have kept themselves in play by doing much of the same. On the biggest day of their home season, at least in one-day cricket, with the knowledge that a loss would hand the series to India, they had solid plans in place, kept executing them even when they had very little going for them. Their discipline even forced Kohli to change the way he normally plays, making him hit the ball in the air while he was still in his 20s. Making the opposition do things they don’t want to goes a long way to winning matches. South Africa have done enough to keep this one is in the balance.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.