Several South African cricketers in this new-look T20I side are massive rugby fans and they all gathered in front of the TV on Saturday in Bengaluru, anticipating a victory for Springboks over defending champions All Blacks in the ongoing rugby World Cup. It didn't happen, but there was some cheer for the cricket team on Sunday as they completed a nine-wicket rout of India to square the series 1-1.
Sure, captain Quinton de Kock biffed an unbeaten 79 off 52 balls, but the series-levelling win was shaped by the unheralded Bjorn Fortuin and Beuran Hendricks, who had broken into the South Africa T20I side on the back of sparkling performances in the Mzansi Super League (MSL) and the CSA T20 Challenge. Opener Reeza Hendricks and Temba Bavuma, who had also impressed in the MSL, made cameos, helping South Africa turn the tables on India.
After Virat Kohli challenged India to break out of their comfort zone and opted to bat, Shikhar Dhawan swatted the first ball - a dirty leg-stump long-hop from Fortuin - to the square-leg boundary with utmost authority.
It was a bad ball all right, but Fortuin is used to bowling the tough overs in the Powerplay with just two men inside the circle. He has done that in the MSL for Paarl Rocks and for Lions in the CSA T20 Challenge. Fortuin doesn't turn the ball much, a left-arm fingerspinner in the mould of New Zealand's Mitchell Santner and West Indies' Khary Pierre. He is adept at darting the ball into the stumps and denying the batsmen swinging room.
In November last year, on a Paarl track that was termed an absolute belter by former Zimbabwe captain Alistair Campbell, Fortuin took the new ball and returned 4 for 15 against Cape Town Blitz - the second-best figures in the inaugural season of the MSL. Fortuin then bagged 4 for 27 in the CSA T20 challenge final, which had 395 runs scored.
But, with Dhawan adopting a gung-ho approach at the top, de Kock held Fortuin back and gave him just one over in the Powerplay - the phase where he excelled in the domestic T20 competitions in South Africa. When Fortuin was recalled, India were 54 for 1 in six overs. He immediately created a chance by attacking the stumps, but couldn't cling on to a sharp, shin-high return catch off Kohli. Dhawan then clattered a four through square leg, but Fortuin conceded only eight off the over.
Dhawan had holed out by the time Fortuin returned for a new spell, in the 13th over. Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer were the batsmen. Pant was going for his shots, he had just shovel-swept Dwaine Pretorius for an outrageous six over fine leg.
How good is the Mzansi Super League? It compares to the IPL, says Rassie van der Dussen pic.twitter.com/3TLQui3IiV— ESPNcricinfo (@ESPNcricinfo) September 21, 2019
Fortuin dangled a non-turner wide of off and invited Pant to hit over the off side with long-off and sweeper cover in place. Pant took the bait, reached out for the ball and wound up slicing a catch straight to long-off. Two balls later, with Iyer charging down the track, Fortuin speared it down the leg side and had him stumped. The double-strike punctured India's momentum and there would be no way back for them on a pitch that suddenly became more responsive to the slower bowlers and change-ups.
"The MSL has given the local guys the platform to show what they can do against world-class players. Bjorn is a bowler for the big occasion," South Africa vice-captain and Fortuin's team-mate at Lions, Rassie van der Dussen, said. "We've seen it a lot of times back home and maybe now the international crowds are seeing that. It was a clear plan against Pant. When he tries to go for boundaries, he looks at long-on, cow corner for the slog-sweep. So when he tries to attack, the spinners also try to attack and Bjorn executed that plan perfectly."
Left-arm seamer Beuran Hendricks, too, smartly exploited the pitch with the variations that have made him a fairly popular T20 option. After leading Jozi Stars to the MSL title, Hendricks was called up to the Mumbai Indians squad in the IPL and won another T20 title with them. He was then snapped up by St Lucia Stars for CPL 2019, but he had to pull out of the tournament because of international duty.
Hendricks wasn't picked for the second T20I in Mohali, but he got the nod on Sunday at the expense of tearaway Anrich Nortje. He had Rohit Sharma nicking off cheaply in his first over - Hendricks has now dismissed Rohit three times in four balls in T20s - and then owned the middle overs with his grippy slower balls. When he didn't take pace off the ball, he kept hitting harder lengths, making it difficult for the Pandya brothers to find the boundary. Hendricks didn't concede a single boundary and picked up 2 for 14 in his four overs, helping limit India to a below-par 134 for 9.
At the start of this T20I series, perhaps not many expected this inexperienced South Africa side - that was without the likes of Imran Tahir, Dale Steyn, and JP Duminy - to challenge India, but they found a way to topple the hosts and square the series. Thanks, they will say, in large measure to their new T20 league.