JOHANNESBURG –T hey promised a Wanderers wicket, and by golly, they delivered. Pace. Bounce. Seam.
If ever Vernon Philander could have hand picked a wicket to play his 50th Test upon, it would surely have been the pristine land that he was handed by Bethuel Buthelezi yesterday morning.
And, as if the 22 yards that truly matter were not enough, Big Vern was given the added goodie bag by Virat Kohli, who insisted on batting first, even as India and South Africa noted the conditions and left out their slow bowlers.
Bat first, he said. With intent. Most of what Kohli does has intent, and he had to have intent when he was called upon to walk to Vernon’s real estate at precisely 10:42am. By then, Philander had shown how miserly he can be, in a spell that would eventually read 7 overs, six maidens, one wicket for the princely sum of one run.
Philander gave nothing away, nibbling away on and around off-stump, while masticating on his eternal piece of gum - and giving the hapless batsman that Capetonian "Aweh" look after he beat the bat. One bat that Philander beat at will in the first hour was that of Cheteshwar Pujara. The man from Rajkot has done many things in his life, but facing 54 balls, and lasting 81 minutes before he had got off the mark is something to now tick off the bucket list.
“That was one of the toughest pitches I have played on,” Pujara opined. “There was a lot of bounce and seam movement. That total is as good as 300 on any wicket."
To his eternal credit, Pujara was the most unaffected man inside the Wanderers, as his vigil at ground zero went beyond the hour.
Dot, after dot, after dot, after dreaded dot came. And still his name had an egg next to it. A lesser man may have run himself out, and got the misery over with. But, Pujara has had quite enough of run outs of late.
“I wanted to get off the mark! But it was difficult to rotate the strike,” Pujara said before the media jury at stumps.
A roar came forth from the humble crowd of 5 541 when Pujara scampered through for a single, when one run finally looked as if it had come off his blade.
Finally, the run-fast was over, and Pujara could breathe.
Alas, umpire Ian Gould unleashed his raised hip, and brushed it thrice with his mitt. Leg-bye! The torture went on. Pujara’s half-century of dot balls got a generous round of applause. As you do. And then, finally, Pujara nipped Lungi Ngidi away to fine leg, and one of the biggest cheers of the day erupted.
Pujara has seen more than anyone else from the Wanderers wicket of 2018. So, what he thinks of the surface matters.
“You have to take your time. You must get used to the bounce and lateral movement. We batted first because we think that there will be variable bounce later, and it will be difficult to bat on,” Pujara said.
How much, pray tell, does he reckon they will roll the South Africans over for? “150,” came the confident response.
In riposte, Andile Phehlukwayo - who did end Pujara’s odyssey with a leg-cutter - noted that the wicket had life.
“There is a ball that has your number, so you have to be positive,” Phehlukwayo said.
On day two, the Proteas will go forth and seek positivity.
And a lead.