Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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A decade from now, Dean Elgar's unbeaten fourth-innings 96 will probably come to dominate recollections of the Wanderers Test of January 2022. Understandably. Apart from being a high-quality knock on a challenging surface, it was also the standout performance on the winning side, the number that leaps most readily out of the scorecard.
But, as is true of all Test matches, the key difference between the teams probably lay in the bowling. South Africa took 20 wickets in 123.2 overs, and India only 13 in 147.2 overs.
Having been neck-and-neck with South Africa over the first three innings of the match, India fell away in the fourth, as their bowlers struggled to create chances on days three and four. Across both innings, their experienced strike bowlers, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, picked up just one and three wickets respectively, and South Africa may have won by an even bigger margin had Shardul Thakur not turned in the performance of his life and picked up seven first-innings wickets.
It wasn't that India bowled poorly, as such; for all their lack of wickets, Bumrah and Shami beat the bat plenty of times, particularly during a riveting second morning. But there was an argument to be made that South Africa's quicks were simply more potent on this Wanderers surface.
Haysman observed that during the second Test in Centurion, the average release point of South Africa's seamers had been roughly 20cm higher than that of their India counterparts, and that this gave them a 15cm advantage in bounce by the time the ball reached the other end. Inconsistent bounce had been a feature of that Centurion pitch, and South Africa's victory owed a lot to their bowlers' greater ability to exploit it.
And this was reflected in the wicket-taking strategies employed by the two teams. Short leg was routinely in place when South Africa bowled, and their quicks looked to hit the pitch hard and find extra bounce from just short of a length to test both shoulders of the bat. Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Hanuma Vihari, India's Nos. 3, 4 and 5, were all consumed by extra bounce in their first innings, at a time when the bounce was both steep and spongy.
Thakur's first-innings success was aided by a crack that he routinely aimed at, but while he got a few balls to rear at the batters, he predominantly looked to use the crack to extract sideways movement rather than bounce. This was the main mode of operation for Shami, Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj as well. They also looked to swing the ball, with Shami often canting the seam towards the slips rather than deliver it bolt upright as he traditionally does.
You can't fault India's quicks for bowling like this, of course; they were simply backing their strengths. But on this Wanderers pitch, you were probably better off being a hit-the-deck bowler rather an exponent of swing and seam.
Rahul Dravid, India's coach, agreed that South Africa's height advantage had proved useful to them.
"It just felt like the ball seemed to misbehave a little bit more for them, and that could be [because of the] fact of the height," he said during his post-match press conference. "On up-and-down wickets sometimes just having that extra height might tend to make a little bit of a difference, so it just felt for us [that] the balls didn't misbehave as much.
"Some did, of course there were some balls that did misbehave even for us, but probably not as many as it did for them. I guess they have that natural height advantage. We are bowlers who tend to pitch the ball up a little bit more, we look for swing, we kiss the surface a little bit more."
Dravid's quote didn't end there.
"So yeah, for us, obviously having to bowl with a slightly wetter ball today meant that area of being able to swing the ball probably was slightly negated a bit, but yeah, it just felt like maybe that is a bit of an advantage in these kind of conditions, when the ball does go up and down, having that little bit of height advantage does make a difference."
India began day four needing eight wickets. South Africa began needing 122 runs. The home team were probably already in the advantage, but the weather would cement this advantage further. After the first two sessions were washed out, play began with the outfield safe to run around on, but still slightly damp.
The ball picked up moisture whenever it rolled into the outfield, and this, as Dravid observed, reduced the amount of swing India could generate.
It also negated their spinner. R Ashwin had bowled a probing spell on the third evening, dismissing Keegan Petersen and causing Rassie van der Dussen enough discomfort to get Rishabh Pant cackling excitedly behind the stumps. When the fourth day finally began, India started with Ashwin from one end, knowing that the ball wouldn't remain dry for long.
"We saw the ball spinning yesterday for Ashwin," Dravid said. "We wanted to get him in [when] the ball was dry, to see in the first couple of overs if he was able to get some spin, especially when the wicket had been under covers. For a while, sometimes if it's a little damp, and with a dry ball, maybe we felt that he could get a wicket in the first two or three overs.
"We tried that because we knew as the ball got wet and damp, it would become very difficult for the spinner to come into the game, and we saw that, so that was a little disappointing as well. Ashwin bowled beautifully yesterday, bowled a really good spell yesterday, and we thought he was troubling van der Dussen, so the gamble was to try and give him the dry ball, first thing, and see if he could get a wicket in the first few overs, and then see if that could do things, but once that didn't happen we obviously went back to the traditional seam-up option."
Was winning the toss inconsequential?
While uneven bounce was evident right through the Test, batting didn't seem to get significantly more difficult as it progressed. The control figures for the match told a tale - from roughly 82% during both teams' first innings, it fell to 75.6% in India's second innings, before rising to 84.7% during South Africa's chase.
It would seem, then, that the pitch did not deteriorate to any great extent, negating whatever advantage India gained from winning the toss and batting first. But, as we've explored earlier, India may have simply been less skilled at exploiting the uneven bounce on offer, and the effects of rain may have also negated their strengths on the final day.
South Africa also got to use the heavy roller twice during their chase: once before their innings began, and once again at the start of day four, at a time when they had already seen off 40 overs and got nearly halfway to their target.
At the end of day three, Cheteshwar Pujara had observed that the heavy roller had been giving the batting team a window of time during which inconsistent bounce was relatively more manageable.
"I feel when you take a heavy roller, the pitch settles a bit, it takes a little bit of time for the cracks to open up," he had said. "There are some dents as well, so when there's a heavy roller, [the pitch] settles down a bit, but after an hour or so we start getting variable bounce."
For all this, though, luck may also have played a part. In their first innings, India played 69 false shots and lost 10 wickets. During South Africa's chase, India induced 62 false shots and only picked up three wickets. Yes, South Africa's quicks probably exploited the conditions better than India's did, but the difference may not have been quite so stark.
A twinge, a body blow
India shouldn't have had that issue at the Wanderers, since their attack and South Africa's had the same composition, with four quicks and a spinner. But India's bowling depth was compromised late on day two, when Siraj pulled up with a hamstring strain while bowling his fourth over of the match.
Siraj soldiered on gamely, earning Dravid's praise for his willingness to bowl through pain, but only sent down 15.5 overs across the two innings. This led to increased workloads for Bumrah and Shami, in particular. They bowled 38 overs each during the match, broken up into longer spells than initially planned, probably, with smaller gaps in between. That effort is bound to show as the series progresses.
And while he bowled well, India also had to use Ashwin for a greater proportion of their overs than they may have ideally wanted to on this pitch, particularly in the first innings. Ashwin sent down 10 first-innings overs and 21.4 overall. South Africa's spinner, Keshav Maharaj, bowled just one over in the entire match.