Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara. Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli. Two more different persons, two more different batsmen will be hard to find. You sometimes wonder if they have any common interests that can help them get through the long days spent next to each other in the slips. And then they bat together. With completely different vocabularies and grammar. One man wants to refuse errors, the other wants to refuse to let the bowler settle. One man can wait out 53 balls on nought while not playing a loose shot to a decent ball, the other is usually near a hundred if he faces 53 dot balls in an innings.
They watch each other and must surely admire the qualities they don't have themselves. Surely Kohli watches Pujara and admires the discipline with which he figures out what line he has to play and what line he can leave? "He has lots of shots, and the way he batted today, I don't think any other batsman could have batted like that," Pujara said of Kohli after adding 84 for the third wicket with him on day one at the Wanderers, easily worth 150 on a normal pitch. This pitch had copious amounts of generous seam movement available.
"This is one of the toughest pitches I've played on," Pujara said. "And as we saw, it was difficult to score some runs, especially in the first session. It was difficult to rotate the strike. It has a lot of bounce, it has seam movement. And there is enough pace now. So we had to work hard to score runs, but the total we have I think it is as good as scoring 300 on any wicket. As we saw, we got a wicket, and if we bowl well, I think we'll get them out. I would say it was a good day for us."
South Africa will be the first ones to concede they were not at their best with the ball and in the field, but the pitch was still really difficult. You needed to bowl really bad balls or bowl decent ones to really good attacking batsmen to be hit on this pitch. In Pujara and Kohli, South Africa found that combination. Pujara waited and waited and waited, and refused to risk making a mistake for a run until he finally got a ball too straight and too full. Kohli backed his eye, picking the length early, getting into attacking positions every ball, and defending or leaving as a second thought. Neither man was averse to doing what didn't come naturally to him: when Pujara was in, he threw his bat at every loose ball; Kohli faced 86 dots out of 106.
Normally you would perhaps criticise the extreme defence of Pujara or - at moments - the reckless attack of Kohli. Here a defensive batsman needed to dig deep into his reserves of discipline, and an attacking batsman needed to capitalise on every small opportunity before one with his name arrived. You need luck to survive on such a pitch, and they both had it.
Too late from the point of view of winning the series, the return to this balance of defence and attack was a step closer to the template that served India's batting well on their previous overseas cycle. For some reason that balance has gone wonky this time around. While Kohli has maintained his attacking instincts, M Vijay is playing too many shots and half-heartedly so, Pujara until this innings was not sure what game to play, and the batsmen after Kohli have no idea what their game should be because they have no security in the side.
Pujara and Kohli did their best to vindicate the bold call to bat first on a spicy pitch. "I think as the game progresses, we are very sure that this wicket will be difficult to bat on," Pujara said. "As we saw even in the later stages of today, the cracks are opening up and a couple of balls deviated a lot. I mean, I haven't seen deviation like that before. As the game progresses I think this wicket will have variable bounce and cracks will open up, so it will be difficult to bat on. That's the reason we chose to bat first."
However, not every bowling innings from South Africa will feature balls too wide or too short, not every day will they have AB de Villiers dropping a catch. The platform set by Pujara and Kohli was a great opportunity for India to post a formidable total. They should be extremely disappointed with the shots played in the lower-middle order and the lower order. They won't be now but they should be asking themselves if they needed five seamers and to lose the cushion of a sixth batsman. What they have now is competitive but will ask for a repeat of this kind of extreme discipline and attacking skill in the second innings too.
Before that, India will need their bowlers to make sure South Africa don't get ahead on the first innings. "I think we'll be looking to get them out before 150," Pujara said. "And, obviously, looking at this total, I think the second innings will be very important. Seeing the weather forecast, I think it will be overcast and there will be more help for the fast bowlers."