File photo of India A skipper Cheteshwar Pujara. (BCCI Image)
Despite India A's tri-series victory in South Africa, there were still questions to be answered. Although the batsmen got heaps of runs, the bowlers got thrashed as the wickets in South Africa at this time of the year are placid and didn't offer much assistance to them. All eyes were on the four-day format as this is why the team was sent to South Africa: to provide the India hopefuls a chance to stake their claim before the senior team's subsequent tour to South Africa in two months. And the team's innings victory in the first unofficial Test at Rustenburg provided at least a few answers.
While the batsmen got a bagful of runs, the bowlers too did a fine job by bowling out the opposition twice in two days. The pitch at Rustenburg was still far from the ideal South African wicket, lacking the sort of help it should generally provide to the seamers. India A thrived on it as they got the chance to use it first and their batsmen made merry, with skipper Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina scoring centuries.
With his innings of 137, Pujara strengthened his place in the Test team which will be picked for the South Africa tour in some time. His form was a bit patchy lately as he scored 19 and 0 in the two ODIs against Zimbabwe and 29 and 9 in the first two matches of the tri-series. A 51 against Australia A brought him amongst the runs and 109 in the next game showed that he was gearing up for a big one. Batting at No. 3, Pujara soaked up the early pressure, made sure that the team didn't lose early wickets before unfurling his array of strokes. His good form also rubbed onto his other team-mates.
Rohit has been often blamed for throwing his wicket away after getting starts. His last few innings proves that point. After scoring 58 in the tri-series final against Sri Lanka in the Caribbean, he got four more fifty-plus scores (one against Zimbabwe and three in the tri-series in South Africa) but couldn't convert one of them into a big score. Pressure was mounting on him. If he didn't get a big score soon, there were other people snapping at his heels. He made amends though, scoring 119 in the four-day encounter. He was also involved in two important partnerships, 176 with Pujara for the third wicket and 106 with Raina for the fourth. Now his aim would be to keep converting these fifties into hundreds.
There were doubts about how Raina would cope with the conditions in South Africa. One might reason the placid wickets at Pretoria and Rustenburg helped his cause but he still needed to make runs. And he did just that, hitting 135 off 177 balls, which gave their innings the impetus they were looking for at the end. His offspin too was used effectively by Pujara as he scalped three wickets in the first innings and one more in the second. Runs here might not confirm his place in the Test team, but it has, at least, given him the boost and psychological edge if he does get a chance later.
After the batsmen did their job, it was the bowlers' turn to stand up and be counted. And with the wicket still good for batting, it required a persistent effort to bowl out the opposition twice. Ishwar Pandey, the medium pacer, was the star in both innings, getting 4 for 46 in the first and 3 for 25 in the second. Mohammed Shami too bowled well, picking up 3 for 33.
Pandey, who spoke about the importance of these outings in an interview to Cricketnext before the start of this tour, continued his good work. Having got five wickets in the last two matches of the tri-series, he got seven more at Rustenburg. Shami too bowled well, especially in the second innings. Another good show by either of them in the next match will surely put them high up in the pecking order to get picked as back-up seamers to Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav.
In the next match, pressure will be on the likes of Ajinkya Rahane and Murali Vijay, who haven't got many runs in their last few innings. The onus will be on them to score big and make a case for themselves for the subsequent tour. After Rohit and Raina got runs in this match, it would be interesting to see whether the team management brings in Ambati Rayudu and Stuart Binny in their places and gives Vijay and Rahane a longer run. It is also expected that Wriddhiman Saha will make way for Dinesh Karthik when the two teams face each other in the second unofficial Test starting August 24 in Pretoria.