The demons of cricketing lore that reside in the Centurion pitch decided to largely sleep through Boxing Day. There had been too much rain coming into the first day of the first Test.
Until late in the second session, there wasn’t enough sunshine to dry up the moisture, quicken up the wicket or rouse the baddies in the wicket to give the SA bowlers a serious nudge.
Often the demons would wake, momentarily, only to cock a snook at the South African pace attack and disappear. It was easier to enjoy the Indian batting instead as the visitors put up a rousing performance led by KL Rahul’s composed century (batting 122; 17×4, 1×6), his seventh in Tests and sixth away from home.
It was Virat Kohli’s brave call to bat first that saw India dominate Day 1, putting up 272/3 at stumps to set the platform for a big first-innings score.
Not always pretty or completely flawless, Rahul’s innings was, instead, quietly assertive and wisely restrained. It carried the resolute approach, decisive footwork, patience and intelligence at the crease of another Rahul, the new coach Dravid. It was just the sort of fighting knock India needed to make an early statement in the series.
Sure, Kagiso Rabada often fought lone ranger. Lungi Ngidi (3/45 off 17 overs) picked up all the wickers, lighting up the middle session with back-to-back scalps of the judicious and in-form Mayank Agarwal (a well-compiled 60; 123 balls, 9×4) and the struggling Cheteshwar Pujara. The nervous left-arm debutant Marco Jansen also offered hope of a brighter future. Even so, this South African pace attack often looked weary, indisciplined and out of ideas. Their lack of red-ball match practice showed.
The bowlers were guilty in the morning session of not making the batters play enough, allowing the determined opening pair of Rahul and Agarwal to create history with their 117-run stand. This is now the very first Indian opening pair to put on a century stand in the first Test of an away series in SENA (SA, Eng, NZ, Aus) countries.
Rahul, the consummate modern batsman with a flurry of flamboyant strokes in his kitty, constructed instead a masterclass in conservatism and judgment. Before the Test, Rahul had said about his approach, “I haven’t played a lot of games here but the basics remain the same: play close to the body, leave a lot of balls, see off the new ball. The focus is to play tight, be disciplined, stay patient.”
The batter was undeterred through a 21-ball search for his first run. Rahul seemed in good space when it came to judging his off stump, having settled on a suitable technique to leave those deliveries outside off. He didn’t mind if he looked scratchy at times and even found luck when an ugly top edge fell short of Jansen.
He gave the bowlers their due early on and searched instead for timing and poise. The first boundary came in the ninth over and he didn’t look back, punishing anything straying onto the pads. A nice cut shot followed off Wiaan Mulder, the batter getting into position early and rolling his wrists over the shot to indicate this could be his day. Rahul’s innings gathered momentum in the middle session, a cover-driven boundary off Ngidi bringing up the half century.
He got into the 90s with a six but even at 98, Rahul was leaving balls and playing late. The century, when it eventually came off 218 balls, served a quiet reminder to India’s batters that the need to absorb pressure is key in these conditions. By the end of the day, he was backfoot-punching Kehav Maharaj through point with consummate ease.
Agarwal too played checked drives and controlled his hands for another impressive vigil. An unfortunate LBW dismissal in which the ball-tracker proved everyone wrong curtailed his innings, moving the spotlight to the struggling middle order.
The very next ball brought the lone shocker of the day for India. Pujara, looking to defend on an extended front foot, managed only an inside-edge to short leg to continue his dry run. Kohli looked good yet again until impetuosity got the better of him as he chased at a wide half-volley after seven dot balls to throw away a good start.
The pleasant surprise of the day was Ajinkya Rahane (batting 40; 8×4) who shrugged off the crippling spotlight on his poor form and place in the side to put on 73 with Rahul. It promises more.