Virat Kohli had made a clean sweep of the toss in the series, but India’s ambitions of doing so on the scorecard had suffered an early jolt at 39 for three, with the captain himself one of the casualties. Kohli looked out of sorts during his short innings, playing and missing with a flat-footed drive off Anrich Nortje before being trapped in front by one that came in after pitching.
The surface was offering decent, and occasionally, variable bounce on Day One. Rohit Sharma was looking edgy at the other end, with Kagiso Rabada, who had already accounted for Mayank Agarwal and Cheteshwar Pujara, administering a stiff test.
However, Ajinkya Rahane came and looked in the groove from the first ball itself. He clipped the first ball off his toes to mid-wicket and when Proteas skipper Faf du Plessis brought on another mid-wicket, a shortish one, he bisected the two for a couple next ball.
Rahane’s positive approach gave Rohit the space to grow into the game at his own pace. At the end of the day, Rohit was unbeaten on 117 – his third century of the series, sixth overall in 30 Tests – when bad light followed by rain ended the day’s play six overs after tea. Rahane was batting on 83 and India, thanks to an unbroken 185-run fourth wicket partnership, had raced to 224 for three. Rohit, in the process, achieved the record of hitting most number of sixes in a Test series, 17.
Fans of a certain vintage have grown up watching Mumbai batsmen dominating Indian cricket. Mumbai batting pairs putting on century partnerships used to be normal in the 1980s and ‘90s; be it Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar, or Sachin Tendulkar and Sanjay Manjrekar, or Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli (for a brief period). Things changed over the past two decades because the Indian team gradually became an assortment of players from almost every part of the country. Smaller cities started to rise and produce players, more so since the emergence of a Ranchi boy, answering to the name of MS Dhoni. Indian cricket thrived due to the game’s expansion into every nook and cranny.
From that perspective, two players from the Mumbai maidans, displaying the ‘Mumbai school of batting’ and helping India come out of the woods happened after a long time. But as India’s batting coach Vikram Rathour pointed out after the day’s play: “Khadoos cricket that Mumbaikars used to play has changed now. You see Mumbaikars play a lot many more shots now. And you see some very, very solid players from other parts of India now. So, we weren’t even looking at it as Mumbaikars’ partnership. It was two good players who batted well for the Indian team today.”
Rohit vs Rabada
The contest between Rohit and Rabada in the morning session was fascinating. Even after lunch, the South Africa quick bowled another top spell, and Rohit had to tough it out. Rahane took charge during that period, taking three fours off a Rabada over. The Indian Test vice-captain showed a lot of intent and his positivity kept the scoreboard moving at a brisk pace. Later, when Rohit was in his element, he became the aggressor.
Test cricket was resplendent in its ebb and flow, punches and counter-punches; but what a shame that barely 5,000-odd spectators turned up on the first day, on a weekend.
Coming back to Rohit’s knock, fluidity started to arrive towards the end of the first session, when he dispatched Ngidi to the mid-wicket boundary with a short-arm pull. Another pull off Nortje a couple of overs later cleared the long leg fence. In between, Zubayr Hamza at short leg put down a tough chance off debutant left-arm spinner George Linde. It was, in fact Linde’s first over in Test cricket and he was unlucky, while Rohit, dropped on 28, capitalised on the reprieve.
A glorious off-drive off Nortje took Rohit to his half-century. Then, he started to accelerate. He milked Linde, played a contemptuous inside-out extra-cover drive against Ngidi before decimating Dane Piedt. The opener reached his hundred hitting a six off Piedt over long-off. The decision to promote him to the top of the order has proved to be a masterstroke.
“I always believed he (Rohit) is too good a player not to be playing in any format. It was a good call to make him open. With the amount of runs he has scored, he has settled the issue for the time being. Somebody of his experience and the kind of cricket he plays, if he starts coming good at the top of the order, it changes everything for the Indian team, even when you are touring,” Rathour said.
South Africa sent Temba Bavuma for the coin toss but he didn’t do any better than his skipper. The visitors lost the toss for the third time on the spin. They made five changes to their playing XI, including two debutants in Heinrich Klaasen and Linde. But yet again, they surrendered the initiative after making early inroads. Batting would be difficult in the fourth innings on this pitch, and the Saffers are already playing catch-up.