Day 1 of 5
Johannesburg - How much would India miss Sachin Tendulkar? It’s been the theme of this ludicrously short tour. India’s first Test without Tendulkar is a seminal occasion for Indian cricket and especially the generation of batsmen he, in the main, has inspired.
One of them rose gloriously to the occasion on Wednesday. Batting in Tendulkar’s spot at No4 in the order, Virat Kohli stared down the best attack in Test cricket, rode some early good fortune, but emerged as the day’s dominant player and undoubtedly infused confidence into a dressing-room that must have been concerned about what they would be facing at the ground.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s decision to bat may appear brave, but it was easily the correct call given the look of the surface. Graeme Smith’s assertion on Tuesday that it had a lot of moisture changed on Wednesday morning to “it’s drier than I thought”. As a result there was little lateral movement, though it was quite slow, perhaps slower than the South Africans would have preferred.
Nevertheless, after a tepid opening half an hour, Dale Steyn found some inner fire and South Africa had the better of an intense first session. Shikhar Dhawan crumbled beneath a barrage of short-pitched bowling from Steyn, before Morné Morkel, probably the best of the home team’s bowlers, perfectly executed a plan to Murali Vijay that saw a series of bouncers force the batsmen onto the back-foot, before a fully pitched up delivery was edged behind to the wicketkeeper.
That brought Kohli to the crease at 24/2 in the 16th over to join Cheteshwar Pujara, and the duo upon whom so much of India’s future depends, saw the tourists through to the lunch break in composed fashion.
A feature of India’s batting throughout the day was the manner in which they left the ball. There was a lot of talk from their camp about the importance of doing so in South Africa against this attack, and it was a ploy that was well executed by everyone, even Kohli, who was by far the most attacking batsmen.
Kohli is a very confident player, and that confidence took a hit - along with his rib-cage - in the ODI series. However, his self-belief meant he would not go into his shell in this first Test and he relished the occasion going toe-to-toe with the South Africans. Rather than duck every short ball, he employed the hook, playing the shot with such ease that it bordered on disdain.
When offered the chance to drive, he did so with elegance, and one such off-drive off Steyn before tea highlighted his comfort and dominance at the crease.
In the first hour after lunch Kohli and Pujara seemed to be getting on top of the South Africans. All those comparisons between Pujara and Rahul Dravid certainly hold some water - Pujara knows where his off-stump is, his defence on both the front and back foot is solid, and he has a quiet toughness that irritates aggressive quick bowlers.
South Africa never looked like getting him out, which is why they would have been grateful for India gifting them his wicket. He and Kohli got into awful trouble after the latter called him for a short single before changing his mind, by which stage Pujara was already halfway down the wicket, and the bowler, Imran Tahir, had tossed the ball back to Hashim Amla at the stumps.
Kohli put that error out of his mind to claim an eighth Test century with a neat clip for two through midwicket off JP Duminy. There was much whooping and hollering from a player whose ability to keep his emotions in check have long been questioned. But such exuberant celebration was deserved.
Kohli is just the eighth Indian batsman to make a century in South Africa and joins Tendulkar and Dravid as the only two players from that country to make a hundred at this venue. The manner of his dismissal was tame though as he chipped a wide half volley to cover reaching 119 (257m, 181b, 18x4).
Quick wickets on Thursday morning with a ball that is still only 10 overs old will see South Africa gain the ascendancy.
But after on Wednesday they know that India won’t roll over without a fight.