Day 1, stumps India 273 for 3 (Agarwal 108, Kohli 63*, Rahane 18*, Rabada 3-48) v South Africa
PUNE: Mayank Agarwal came back to the site of his first-class resurgence to score a second successive Test hundred that sent India into a position of strength once again. Cheteshwar Pujara supported him with his second successive half-century, and Virat Kohli loomed large with an unbeaten 63 of his own.
South Africa will be disappointed they took just the three wickets on surface that didn’t completely eliminate their fast bowlers. It was a pitch on which Kagiso Rabada managed to take three wickets with a mode of attack straight out of South Africa: bowling in a channel outside off, getting outside edges that carried.
Remember the wry smile of resignation when Faf du Plessis lost the toss in Visakhapatnam? This time Virat Kohli smiled in slight embarrassment after he had won yet another toss. This time du Plessis wasn’t as deflated because there was some moisture in the surface from the rains in the lead-up to the Test. Pune is also a pitch known for its bounce, so South Africa had something to work with.
Agarwal went through that tough period, not without some fortune but nothing that might count as undue luck for an opening batsman. He and Pujara added 138 for the second wicket after the early fall of Rohit Sharma before Kohli took over with a winters’ afternoon stroll of a half-century.
The first hour was full of frustration for South Africa with edges eluding fielders, mistimed hooks falling short of fielders, an umpire’s call going Agarwal’s way on an lbw shout, and quite a few plays and misses. India were in control of fewer than 75% of the deliveries they faced in the first 15 overs. A touring side can’t ask for more help in away conditions in this age of cricket. And yet, they had only Rohit’s wicket – off a length ball that held its line – to show.
Apart from some ordinary luck, South Africa’s lengths were either too full or too short. A ball after debutant Anrich Nortje, playing ahead of the extra spinner, clocked him on the head, Agarwal was good enough to cover-drive a full ball for four. As Nortje went fuller searching for assistance, Agarwal drove him for three fours in another over.
Pujara didn’t even provide South Africa a look-in despite taking 13 balls to get off the mark. He kept skipping down to spin, and kept finding the gaps. His stumbling block in the last Test was his failure to cover the seam movement away from him in both the innings. So it was natural South Africa attacked his stumps trying to take the ball away. It wasn’t clear if his front foot strode further but he did seem to cover the movement better. A delivery that looked like an action replay – again from Vernon Philnader – of his second-innings lbw was comfortable worked away for a single to leg.
Agarwal’s bursts of scoring continued as the lone specialist spinner Keshav Maharaj kept providing India the loose balls. Two fours off Maharaj in the 28th over took him into the 40s, another square cut brought up a fifty. This was during a period that he had to face a short-ball barrage from Nortje, which momentarily brought the run rate under three but couldn’t cause further damage.
It was instructive that Rabada was now able to achieve the rarest of feats: get Pujara out nicking after he had brought up a fifty on a home pitch. Not only did the pitch have the movement to allow him to do so, it also had the bounce to make sure it carried to Faf du Plessis at slip.
And yet, South Africa failed to capitalise on yet another dismissal. Agarwal and Kohli were kept honest but Agarwal broke the shackles with two sixes in one over off Maharaj. The second of those took him into the 90s, and in the next over he got a thick outside edge, fine of the only catcher behind the wicket, a gully.
Pune is the ground where he was on the verge of being dropped from the Ranji side, but he scored a triple given that extra chance. That was the beginning of his 1000-runs month, which sent him to Australia, after which he has made the opening slot his own.
Rabada again drew an outside edge with a 61-over-old ball, which tells you what a missed opportunity it was for South Africa. In India, where the home side has been beaten only once in the last seven years, you don’t get many windows once you lose the toss. That is just the sheer quality of their Test team. Here they had that window, but sometimes they lacked the quality and sometimes it was the depth.
Kohli cashed in on a lack of depth. Maharaj seemed to be in his best rhythm when Kohli just walked out. He turned a couple past his outside edge. Nortje bowled a seriously quick spell. Kohli began watchfully, respecting Nortje’s pace and playing Maharaj watchfully. He was fortunate that an attempted pull brushed the glove and flew wide of Quinton de Kock. Ajinkya Rahane at the other end seemed less comfortable. So, in fading light, Kohli batted with utmost care. Until South Africa went to Dean Elgar and Senuram Muthusamy as they waited for the second new ball.
You wouldn’t even have noticed but after scoring 27 off the first 73 balls he faced, Kohli plundered 26 in the next 19 balls without one shot in anger. Then he has back to respecting the second new ball when the umpires called the play off early because of bad light.