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The Report by Siddarth Ravindran
December 18, 2013
India 255 for 5 (Kohli 119) v South Africa
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Manjrekar: India's day
It's been a while since India entered a series as much of an underdog as they are on this South Africa visit - even the whitewashes in England and Australia began as a clash of equals. Bereft of the batting legends that have forged India's most successful decade in Tests, and even of proper match practice ahead of this short series, there were widespread doubts over their ability to compete.
Virat Kohli, the man who occupied the fabled No. 4 spot after Sachin Tendulkar's retirement, eased some of that anxiety with a superbly crafted century and at the end of an intriguing day of Test cricket in Johannesburg, the teams were more or less on level terms. The hallmarks of Kohli's innings were the perfectly judged leaves outside off, even as South Africa's pacers persistently probed away, and his punishment of the wayward spinners - caning 50 off 44 deliveries from them - to ensure he didn't get bogged down.
The one big mistake he committed on the day was the muddled calling that led to the run-out of Cheteshwar Pujara, snapping an 89-run stand that had revived India after the openers departed early. India were 24 for 2 then and memories of previous overseas collapses came rushing back.
Kohli's first runs on a track where the bounce was more of a worry than the lateral movement was an authoritative pull for four off Jacques Kallis. He was troubled early on by South Africa's best bowler of the day, Morne Morkel, who had Kohli top-edging and then inside-edging off successive deliveries. After that, though, Kohli was completely in control.
In the first hour after lunch, South Africa employed a strategy that involved keeping the ball in the channel outside off and mixing it up with the odd short delivery. Neither the attempts to play on the batsmen's patience nor the attempts to unsettle them with the rising delivery worked as Kohli and Pujara kept their calm and wore down the pacers.
While the weaker links in the South African attack came in for the most stick, Kohli also went after Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander when they strayed from their usual discipline. A majority of his runs came square of the wicket, with several eye-catching pulls and drives past point and cover.
The pressure was building after tea as South Africa strung together a bunch of maidens with Kohli in the 90s. Perhaps influenced by the flagging over-rate, Graeme Smith turned to JP Duminy who, like Imran Tahir, struggled to land the ball and Kohli picked off the nine runs he needed to reach a landmark century.
Pujara was the other batsman whose technique and temperament promised big runs, and after surviving a couple of close calls early, he settled in. For two hours, with Kohli for company, he kept South Africa at bay. South Africa had turned to the erratic Tahir for a breakthrough, and India finally thought they had some relief, only for the mix-up with Kohli resulting in Pujara's run-out.
The other batsmen didn't adjust their game to the conditions as well. M Vijay and Rohit Sharma both went for over-ambitious drives away from their body, only to nick behind to undo the good work they had done in getting their eye in.
The other wicket was a fast bowler's dream. Steyn normally relies on his late and natural out swing, but sensing the surface wasn't providing him enough, he unleashed a string of bouncers against Shikhar Dhawan in the ninth over. Dhawan, never shy of the aggressive stroke, kept going for his shots as Steyn banged it in short four times in a row; the first went for an unconvincing boundary towards backward square leg, the next flew off the handle towards gully, the third was left down the leg side before an attempted hook landed safely in the hands of fine leg. Steyn's chainsaw celebration showed how thrilled he was at the perfectly executed plan.
It wasn't perfect planning but a loose stroke that ended Kohli's innings midway through the final session, as he chipped Kallis to cover on 119. Had he still been in the middle at stumps, it would have definitely been India's day.
There were heartening signs for India even after his exit though, as Ajinkya Rahane and MS Dhoni played out the final hour in fading light without too many alarms. After a difficult debut in Delhi against Australia early this year, Rahane had a long wait to get another look-in, and he didn't look out of place as he kept out everything South Africa threw at him in an extended final session.
More of the same tomorrow morning and India will end on a score that will challenge South Africa's mighty batting line-up.
Siddarth Ravindran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Siddarth Ravindran
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