Well into the final session, off the 161th ball of his innings, Cheteshwar Pujara cover-drove Lungi Ngidi on the up to pick a boundary. It was his first such stroke of the day. Pujara needed five hours at the crease to allow himself the liberty to have a go at a ball that wasn’t over-pitched and one he had to reach out for. Early in the first session, after just five minutes on the pitch, Virat Kohli had played the same stroke to a similar delivery bowled by Kagiso Rabada.
While Kohli hit the ground running, Pujara first warmed up, then jogged before finally getting into his stride.
The day’s two half-centuries – Kohli (53) and Pujara (50) – showcased two different batting genres. The two innings also highlighted the fact that there was no fixed batting approach, or a template, needed to score runs on this lively green Wanderers pitch. Batsmen could afford to play to their strengths, show patience and, with a bit of luck, counter the tough conditions and the disciplined South African pace attack.
There was another message too, the one that explains India’s first innings score of 187 all out. Except for the two, the rest of the Indian batting didn’t show Test class. Test match prudence wasn’t exercised by everyone at the Wanderers on Wednesday.
Almost a month into this away series, most in the Indian batting line-up hadn’t yet figured out when to attack, when to defend and when to leave. The nuance of longer-format batting, especially in alien conditions, hasn’t quite percolated down the batting line-up of the World No.1 Test team.
Kohli and Pujara have shown they have a plan and the game that can see them adapt abroad. In this batting line-up, only two players look certainties for the Test series in England later this year. With just one more inning left in the series, and conditions expected to get tougher at the Wanderers, time has run out for the batsmen to make amends and repair their reputations.
For most of the day, Pujara showed the time-tested way of playing Tests. He had a big role to play in Vernon Philander getting just one wicket in his first spell. Once he weathered the storm, he opened up. After opening his account off the 54th ball, after mostly playing Philander, the India No.3, post lunch, would hit three boundaries off the same bowler. His strike rate would exponentially increase through the day, as he exploited the tiring South African attack.
Pujara was following the good old plan that Test specialists have stuck to for ages. Give the first two sessions to the bowlers and snatch the final two hours and have the last laugh.
Not giving an inch
Kohli, meanwhile, doesn’t believe in giving an inch. He might be tampering his grammar a bit but he sticks to the same batting language, regardless of the format he plays. While Pujara makes a conscious decision to stay in his shell in the early part of the innings, Kohli is more instinctive.
So when Rabada bowled him a fullish length early in the innings, tempting him to play the drive and edge the moving ball, the Indian captain didn’t let the fear of failure cloud his mind. He took a full stride and brought his bat down with the fluidity of a waterfall. When Morne Morkel bowled up, he punched him straight back. The power of the shot was conveyed to the half-full Wanderers by the booming echo of the ball hitting the willow.
He would play and miss. He would get dropped twice – Philander grassing a sitter at cover and AB de Villiers failing to hold on to a sharp edge at slip. But that didn’t make him circumspect or doubt his plan.
Ironically, both Pujara and Kohli would eventually get dismissed while sticking to their strengths. Pujara got out while defending a ball that didn’t need defending. Kohli, on the other hand, fell while attacking a delivery that demanded more respect and less disdain. Andile Phehlukwayo, the weakest link in the South African pace attack, would bring a ball in, not enough to threaten the stumps. Pujara, while defending, would edge the ball.
Kohli would go hard at an Ngidi express ball outside off. But he wasn’t able to perfectly connect and AB would hold on to the ball whose force and speed would knock him down in the slips.
Though, on a chilly Johannesburg Wednesday when the ball moved in the air, rose alarmingly and deviated after pitching all day, to dwell on the Kohli and Pujara mistakes would amount to hair-splitting.
The fear of failure
There were several Indian batsmen who would be regretting their indecision while at the crease. Unlike Kohli and Pujara, they didn’t trust their instincts or back their strengths. Maybe, the fear of failure played on their minds.
KL Rahul continued to be unsure about which ball he needs to leave and which to play. He couldn’t negotiate a Philander ball that came in sharply. Surprised by the sudden movement, he couldn’t decide if he should play at it or leaves it on length.
Murali Vijay’s disappointing series continued as he once again left early, caught behind the wicket. He was out to a Rabada ball that was full but not quite a half-volley. Vijay lacked the poise and sureness to reach the ball. The half-push, half-drive mishit ended his innings.
Ajinkya Rahane, the most debated bench-warmer of this tour, didn’t have a great first outing in South Africa. He meddled with a ball outside off that he should have left, only to be reprieved by a no-ball. The Mumbaikar didn’t last long through, falling LBW to Morkel.
However, it was Hardik Pandya’s dismissal that showed the gulf between the No.3 and No.4 in the Indian batting line-up and the rest. Facing a rising ball from Phehlukwayo, Pandya would walk across and attempt a pull. Out of position, he would top-edge it.
Kohli, at the start of the day, had taken the bold decision of batting first on a green track. Captains of past, especially those who were part of the top order, have taken the easier option of bowling first. Despite the scrutiny about his leadership during the last two Tests, Kohli opted to bat under tough conditions. His boys, though, couldn’t take the challenge.