Seven hundred and thirty-four runs were scored the last time an ODI game was played at The Rose Bowl, Southampton, less than a month back, between England and Pakistan. England scored 373, Pakistan got 361 in reply. The pitch felt like a freshly constructed cement road, bowlers existed as a mere formality, and spectators in the stands turned fielders as every other ball flew out of the park.
When South African captain Faf du Plessis won the toss and chose to bat against India on the auspicious occasion of Eid, a “run feast” was predicted by experts, with the projected score looking like NDA exit poll predictions. Conservative estimates began at 300, some went for 330 and India’s annoying uncle Sanjay Mankrejar was certain that it was a 350-plus game.
As the game got underway, to a batsman’s disdain and bowler’s delight, there was immediately a moment that we don’t see enough in white ball cricket anymore. India’s darling, Jasprit Bumrah bowled a ripper outside off stump that moved away a bit, beat Quinton de Kock’s defence and was collected by MS Dhoni over his head. Pace, bounce, and movement — the holy trinity of fast bowling — was present and Boom Boom Bumrah had smelt blood. What followed was a fierce spell of fast bowling by Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Bumrah, as they spit fire and toyed with the South African openers.
Faf du Plessis and Rassie van der Dussen were charged with steadying the ship on what seemed like a bowler’s paradise, and they did something that has become a cardinal sin in cricket these days, they tried to play time. Not being impatient, not going for the glory heave or the ambitious slog, but just feeling the ball hit the middle of the bat, leaving a few deliveries alone and making Sunil Gavaskar proud by “converting ones into twos and twos into threes”. There was something in the pitch for the bowlers, but if the batsmen gave themselves time and applied themselves, it’s wasn’t all doom and gloom. Sharma ji ka ladka would give a fine lesson on that later in the day.
Just when it seemed like South Africa had managed to survive the early tremors, in came India’s Kul-Cha spin duo, doing the unthinkable in ODI cricket, giving the ball a bit of air and letting it grip, turn on the pitch. It’s amazing the lengths bowlers will go to, when given a bit of luxury. Flight? Driving length? Blasphemy! Chahal struck gold with a couple of quick wickets, and South Africa were totterring again. The dreaded “C” word (choke) started appearing on Twitter with South Africa reduced to 89-5.
Pace, bounce, and movement — the holy trinity of fast bowling — was present and Boom Boom Bumrah had smelt blood.
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But the game ebbed and flowed like a Salman Khan masala film, as South Africa stitched another small partnership, only for India to strike back again. It was never a one-way traffic, but an even contest between bat and ball. The bowlers were on top in certain parts of the game, while the South African lower order took charge toward the end of the innings. Unlike a Salman film, this was not going to have any fireworks or a massive fight sequence at the end, and that was its beauty. Eventually, the Proteas closed their innings at 227, a winning total in the 1975 World Cup and one that evokes reactions of “bas itna hi?” in 2019.
India were picked as favourites to chase down the target. However, after Bumrah created shockwaves early on in the first innings, it was now time for his counterpart Kagiso Rabada to do the same. India managed a paltry 30-odd runs for the loss of one wicket in the first ten over, with the Proteas hitting the right lengths and the Sharma-Kohli duo putting up a spirited performance out there in the middle. While a few wickets kept tumbling at one end, Rohit Sharma played a masterclass on a tough wicket at the other. It was ODI cricket at its riveting best.
The batsmen couldn’t rely on mere muscle power or hand-eye coordination to blow away the bowling attack. Patience, technique, and craft were need of the hour, and many flat-track bullies had been found wanting when asked to negotiate movement and bounce. The bowlers knew it wasn’t a game of containing runs, but of attacking and taking wickets. For once, they didn’t have to worry about being hit for 55 in four overs on a ground smaller than a Punjabi wedding hall. They bowled full, they bowled short, they gave the ball flight and they teased the batters. With boundaries and big hits coming few and far between, one had to be stingy in the field and desperate when it came to running between the wickets.
The batsmen couldn’t rely on mere muscle power or hand-eye coordination to blow away the bowling attack.
The low-scoring game between India and South Africa was a brilliant endorsement of good old ODI cricket, where there was something in the pitch for everyone. If you could bowl quick, there was true bounce. If you gave the ball air, it gripped and turned. If you applied yourself with bat, you could even get a hundred. It was, in the truest sense, a fair contest between bat and ball — the way cricket was always meant to be played.
In an era where targets higher than 300 are gulped down like breakfast and umpires have to wear protective gear to survive Chris Gayle’s onslaught, the thrill of a low-scoring cat-and-mouse game is unmatched. It’s like chess, where the advantage is gained and ceded every few moves, and you need everyone to contribute for victory. Luckily for India, Rohit Sharma managed to checkmate South Africa in 47 overs.
When the World Cup ends and we look back at the matches, we might reminisce some massive hits, stunning catches and umpiring controversies but it will be the close low- scoring games that will never leave our memory. Where both bat and ball were equal and the pendulum could have swung either way. That, is ODI cricket at its finest.