Pujara and Kohli defy expectations
Cheteshwar Pujara is playing his third Test in South Africa, and his third outside Asia. Virat Kohli is in his first in South Africa, and his eighth outside Asia. The difference in conditions in Asia and elsewhere is huge: the ball bounces more, swings more, and moves more after pitching outside Asia. Despite the extra bounce, the key is to come forward at every possible opportunity. These two batsmen have not played a single first-class match on this tour. If you had taken a sabbatical from cricket, though, and had been doing whatever people do on sabbaticals from cricket, and had been sent to the Wanderers, you would have thought these were two veterans who have been playing Test cricket for 10 years. You might have even thought they were playing at home.
The reality, though, is that nobody had big expectations from them on this tour. People would have lived with failures too, as long as they didn't get out limply. However, to put India in a position to give back what they have been at the receiving end of is absolutely stunning. Think Trent Bridge, Edgbaston and The Oval. Think SCG, WACA and Adelaide Oval. India have been dished out a lot on their previous two away trips. Wonder if MS Dhoni and Duncan Fletcher quietly smiled at each other when Pujara and Kohli were going on the third day, never looking like getting out - that drop by Imran Tahir was against the run of play - building a big lead, grinding the opposition into the dust. The job is not done yet, but this is the kind of day India were dying to experience away from home.
Kohli had announced his arrival in the first innings, but Pujara was unfortunately run out. His turn came two days later. A 36-run first-innings lead was big on this pitch. Many a team would have tried to hit out at the top, and would have been happy had it snuck a defendable lead. Virender Sehwag tried to do that when India won in Durban the last time India were in South Africa. Here, though, India trusted themselves enough, and batted as if they were batting in the first innings. No anxiety, no nerves, just backing their games.
M Vijay's role cannot be overstated. He spent 155 of the most difficult minutes at the wicket, scoring just 39, but he blunted the new ball, and tired the weakened bowling unit in the absence of the injured Morne Morkel. Pujara, he was nearly perfect. He left the short ones well, moved forward whenever it was demanded, and defended solidly. Moving forward is one thing, but still managing to play late is quite another. Pujara did that.
Pujara let Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander blow their steam off, showing great acumen in knowing that the weaker bowlers will arrive at some stage. He knew this was going to be a long day for South Africa, and he wanted to be there to make it even longer. He was 9 off 64 at one stage, but you couldn't say he was struggling. Because he was not. He was waiting. He has done that many times in domestic cricket. His press forward began with a half-volley from Philander, the 65th ball he faced, which he put away for four. He hit two more fours relatively close to each other, but that brought the tea break, at which point he was 39 off 107.
After the break, it was time for a new start. He was restrained again. "We have got all the time, boys." This was proper Test-match batting. Off the next 17 balls he took only six, never mind that JP Duminy and Tahir had begun to bowl. He reached his fifty, and then saw Tahir drop him. About then, Pujara decided it was time to push the advantage. Once Pujara tires down the bowlers and fielders, he punishes every loose ball. Those who have seen him go from 150 to 200 in 17 balls when pushing for a declaration in a Ranji Trophy match, or those who witnessed the march - along with the tail - from 229 to 300 in 55 balls, will hardly be surprised that he went from 50 to 100 in 41 balls.
By the time Pujara does that, he has sussed out the conditions and the bowlers. And he does so with cricketing shots, without feeling the need to go in the air. There are few risks involved. It comes from solid trust in your game and technique. Pujara always had that trust, but it was pleasant to learn that he had the same confidence even in South Africa. This maturity - and that of Kohli - is hard to find in batsmen even on their third or fourth tours. On that count, these two have surpassed many an expectation.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo