Virat Kohli looked troubled in the nets on a practice surface that offered bowlers bounce aplenty. © BCCI

Virat Kohli looked troubled in the nets on a practice surface that offered bowlers bounce aplenty. © BCCI

The middle path is what people choose when they want to avoid conflict or take the road of least resistance. You wouldn’t have known it if you watched India’s practice session at SuperSport Park in Centurion on Thursday (January 11), two days’ out from the second Test of their series against South Africa.

After the customary game of football, which was preceded by a mishmash that looked part kabaddi, part handball, part invention, the Indians repaired to the practice area adjacent to the ground, with three nets set up. In the first, Sanjay Bangar and Raghu had their trusted sidearms to provide throwdowns. The last one was manned by R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, along with local spinners. In the centre, India’s pace attack was letting loose.

The unlikely trio of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami were the first to pad up, but after a brief batting session, they all joined Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav and a couple of promising young quicks with ball in hand. If you had just arrived hoping to watch India’s famed batting strut its stuff, you would have had to avert your eyes. Virat Kohli was troubled almost throughout, crisp hits being followed by deliveries whistling through. For those alarmed at the Indian captain’s form, the solace was that every batsman who came into the middle net faced the music.

It is a pointer, if any more were needed, to the fact that the surfaces India will get in this series will all have a heavy tilt towards pace and the practice surfaces were reflective of that. When the South Africans came later in the day, their pacers also had the batsmen in trouble. Lots of help for the bowlers is good news for those wanting a result, though for India it is vital that the result goes their way, because otherwise the series is lost.

“We are not focussing on the result,” said Bumrah. “Because whenever we focus far ahead, we drift away from our plans. So we are taking each day at a time and trying to train well. I have not played over here but as far the net wickets go, there’s a good amount of bounce.”

KL Rahul is likely to find his way back in the side at the expense of Shikhar Dhawan. © BCCI

KL Rahul is likely to find his way back in the side at the expense of Shikhar Dhawan. © BCCI

The other gleaning from India’s practice, which is typically more intense two days before the match and eases up on match eve, is that KL Rahul seems set to replace Shikhar Dhawan in India’s XI. Rahul, M Vijay and Kohli were the first lot to practice among the batsmen, followed by Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane. Dhawan only got a go after that.

The opening Test loss had much to do with the bowling profligacy in India’s first innings, which allowed South Africa to make 286 after being 12 for 3, but the top-order batsmen too will want more from themselves, having collectively failed in both innings. It was not the easiest pitch to bat on, but with similar surfaces likely, the batsmen will have to find ways to make weightier contributions. The bowlers seemed to have absorbed the lessons of the first innings very well in the second innings. But the team as a whole knew that till 90% into the game, any of the two sides could have won it, and will take heart from that.

As Bumrah said, “Your confidence doesn’t take a dent after one Test match. If your confidence goes away after one match, you don’t deserve to play! According to me, you learn from the mistakes you have made and keep moving forward. There isn’t a single cricketer who has never made a mistake. You keep learning, and you keep improving all the time.”

Bumrah, who was handed a debut at Newlands, had 1 for 73 in 19 overs in the first innings, but took 3 for 39 in 11.2 overs in the second, showing that he had indeed learned from what happened.

“In the first innings, we thought we bowled a little fuller than normal because in India, the wickets are different where we have to pitch the ball a little fuller to get swing and you have to get the batsmen on the front foot,” he explained. “Over here, there is bounce, so there is a little bit of difference. We analysed that and tried to adapt that in the second innings and as a unit we were able to create pressure. We focussed on our lengths which were wrong in the first innings. We just tried to correct that and not overdo things because over here when there is help from the wicket and you try to do extra, that won’t help. That was the basic plan going into the second innings, and it worked well.”

The calm head Bumrah keeps on his shoulders at most times will serve India well heading into this Test. Bumrah made the point of not pre-judging conditions with a philosophical, “Never go by perceptions that this will happen and this won’t happen. Nowadays, anything can happen anywhere.”

And he kept things in perspective on a debut that got him the wicket of AB de Villiers twice too, while still ending in a loss for his side. “It was not a dream debut,” he countered when that was put to him. “But whatever I learned from the first match, I was very happy. As a bowler, you quickly want to get your first Test wicket and to get AB’s wicket is very good. He was playing really well, and I got his wicket. It felt really good, but yes, not to get too excited and not to get too down after every match is my basic motto.”

Now, that middle path is one the team could adopt without any danger.