Match Analysis

Petersen and Bavuma show spark but then fade on pitch that's 'not getting easier to bat on'

There was the prospect of centuries from both, but errors cost them on a cat-and-mouse type of day

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Temba Bavuma fends off a short ball  •  AFP/Getty Images

Temba Bavuma fends off a short ball  •  AFP/Getty Images

It's not perfect - and batting in these conditions isn't supposed to be - but South Africa's line-up finally showed some of the mettle they have been missing over much of the last two years. You won't find much proof of that on the scorecard, with no centuries and no partnerships in triple-figures, but you will find it in an analysis of how the runs were scored and who scored them.
Keegan Petersen and Temba Bavuma sussed out the situation and adjusted accordingly to provide something of a blueprint for how to approach both the Wanderers surface and the Indian attack. Neither allow batters to hang around and wait for runs. The uneven bounce means you never quite know when you get a ball that has your name on it. The visiting bowlers rarely deliver a bad ball. "You're never really in," Petersen confirmed. So, you have to do what you can when you are.
When Ottis Gibson was South Africa's coach between 2017 and 2019 and South Africa embarked on a revenge-pitches approach, the line-up adopted a mantra along the lines of get-runs-before-you-get-out. That was the kind of strategy needed here.
Petersen looks like has the technique to do that anywhere; a technique he honed under the watch of his father, Dirk, who played club cricket alongside Marais Erasmus, one of the umpires in this Test. "If you could ask people that I know, they would always see my dad throwing thousands of balls to me in the nets at the time. That's where I learnt my batting," he said.
It's paying off. While Dean Elgar took 31 balls to add to his overnight score of 11 and survived being squared up and beaten by Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, Petersen found runs. He scored 24 in the first hour while Elgar managed four. The difference? Mostly just a matter of fortune, but while Elgar relies heavily on scoring opportunities on the leg side, Petersen can score all around the wicket. He is an organised player, compact in defence and with a full range of strokes at his disposal. His clips off the pads and front-foot drives were particularly well-timed and placed. He also acquitted himself well against the spinner, who he has faced for the first time in Tests, with confident footwork.
That he played a loose stroke in the end disappointed him. After Petersen nicked off to a wide, and probably quite harmless, Thakur delivery, he swished his bat around and shook his head in disbelief as he walked off, thoughts of a first Test century reduced to a what-if. He is not the only one with that question. A lack of hundreds has been a running theme for this line-up over the last three years.
Since January 2019, South Africa have collectively scored 43 fifties and eight hundreds, a conversion rate of a century even 6.4 fifties. Only Ireland, with four fifties and no centuries, have done worse in the same period.
Petersen is now one of those offenders and Bavuma is among the worst. He has 17 fifties to his name, five since January 2019, and still just a solitary Test hundred. There are many mitigating factors for Bavuma's inability to push on, including that he has often had to drag South Africa out of a hole which either left him batting with the lower order and running out of partners or which simply sunk deeper, but that's changed.
In his last 10 innings, only once have South Africa had less than 50 on the board and six times, the score was over 100. Compare that to the 10 innings before, when Bavuma only twice walked out to a score greater than 35 and six times was called on with the score at less than 20 and you'll see that the inclusion of Rassie van der Dussen and that South Africa have not toured India has helped Bavuma and now there is an awareness that he needs to step up.
On the eve of this Test, Elgar singled out Bavuma as the batter on whom much is expected. "He needs to stop getting those good fifties and getting those hundreds because we know how far it goes with regards to setting up the team," Elgar said at the time.
Perhaps that also fuelled some of the urgency with which Bavuma batted today, an urgency that like so much else about him came from a slow burn. Bavuma did not start off rushed. He faced Shami for 16 of his first 20 balls, and had his outside edge found twice, while Kyle Verreynne took advantage of a few boundary balls from Shardul Thakur. But when the chance came for Bavuma to cash in, he did. A flick through midwicket off Mohammed Siraj, a straight drive down the ground off Bumrah and a square cut off Thakur and suddenly Bavuma looked a lot more aggressive than usual. Add to that the four through midwicket and the pull that went for six and you've got Bavuma's strike rate peeping over 80.
He finished with a strike rate of 85, his highest when he has scored more than 50 runs, and an indication of both his intent and India's strategy. They were also searching: with fuller deliveries and gaps in the field, unafraid to give a few runs away because they knew rewards would come.
It made for a cat-and-mouse day of play, with no-one certain of exactly how to approach these conditions. "I'm not actually sure what the right way to bat here is," Petersen said. "Evidently, the attacking option worked out for a couple of guys but it wasn't overly attacking. It was more pouncing on the bad ball when it doesn't come and making the most of it, because there weren't many. Whatever they offered we have to take."
Sometimes even that went wrong. When Bavuma stepped across early to meet a back-of-a-length Thakur delivery, he feathered it down the leg side. It was in equal parts unnecessary for Bavuma to move with enough time for Thakur to follow him and crafty of Thakur but when Bavuma watches the replay, he may think that of all the innocuous deliveries Thakur sent down, that could well be the most innocuous.
In a situation where almost everything is tough, the last thing batters want to do is make it even tougher for themselves but Petersen cautioned against being too critical of their mistakes. "It's only human to make an error so that's probably where we faulted. I think it was a decent effort given the conditions."
And these conditions are only going to get more difficult. South Africa will bat last on a surface that "is not getting easier to bat on", according to Petersen, who thinks "realistically anything under 200" is chaseable. "But the more they get, the further it gets for us and the more we have to get stuck in there again."
At least South Africa have shown themselves that they have some of what it takes to do that. India's bowlers and the Wanderers deck will test whether that some is enough.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent