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JOHANNESBURG: Going by what had happened in the ODIs, India fared remarkably well on their first day of Test cricket on South African soil, finishing on a creditable 255/5 after MS Dhoni won his first toss of the tour and elected to bat. This was all thanks to Virat Kohli, whose confidence and composure translated into a fifth Test century, only the eighth by an Indian in South Africa, and a knock that drew more from discretion than from his usual ally of aggression.
The 25-year-old’s 119 was a study in shot selection. And it served only to highlight the faulty approach of the men who had failed India on Wednesday. Dhoni’s team were in their usual spot of trouble on 24/2 when Kohli engineered a rescue act, and although the Proteas struck thrice more – each time through nothing special on the part of the bowler – India will be satisfied with what they managed on a day that may well set the tone for the rest of the engagement.
It was a clear, sunny morning as Dhoni acted on the curator’s assurance that the pitch would be best to bat on up front, and progressively quicken as the game went on, and chose to bat. Thus was the greenhorn opening pair of Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay thrown to the lions of South Africa’s pace attack, albeit in conditions with limited lateral movement.
A blurry delivery just outside off-stump proved irresistible for the Chennai lad, his stone-footed jab only giving wicketkeeper AB de Villiers catching practice. It was an ominous commencement to the series. But if a positive was to be gained from these unfortunate beginnings it was the bringing together of Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara, both playing their first Test in South Africa, men upon whom rested the onus of scoring most of India’s runs.
Morkel's first spell (6-4-6-1) was sprinkled liberally with extra lift. The tall fast bowler distressed all who faced him: Pujara was beaten outside off; Kohli’s half-hearted leave went racing to third man off the top edge, and then an inside edge trickled unnervingly past the leg stick.
The batsmen grew gradually in confidence. When Philander offered width, Pujara slapped him through point; when Steyn over-pitched, Kohli despatched him to the straight boundary. Graeme Smith deployed Imran Tahir for the last over before the first break, only for the leggie to gift a couple of pressure-relieving long-hops, and India went to lunch on 70/2 in 27 overs.
Soon after resumption, Kohli brought up his half-century with a pull off a Tahir half-tracker. The Pakistan-origin leg-spinner had looked nothing like a Test-grade bowler, but it was in his over that the 89-run union was severed, via a run-out. Kohli patted a delivery to mid-wicket, committed himself to a single and promptly backed out. Pujara (25) tried, unsuccessfully, to retrace his path back to the non-striker’s zone, but was caught short by a Hashim Amla throw.
As if to atone, Kohli punched Steyn and Kallis for boundaries, before the veteran all-rounder went up in appeal for a leg-side feather to the ‘keeper. The umpire, correctly, thought it was pad, and Kohli lived on.
At the other end, Rohit Sharma, who had shared an unenviable relationship with the short ball in the preceding ODIs, was attempting to bat himself into some sort of form. After about half-hour his penance ended on 14, a flash at Philander’s length ball and another catch simple catch to de Villiers – India’s second nothing dismissal of the session.
India resumed on 164/4 for the third and final session. Kohli’s watchfulness had by now reached its zenith as neared a century and the Delhi lad continued to show sound judgment on the leave, shouldering arms each time a pacer tried to lure him. The century arrived on the back of a four and a brace off Duminy, but it led to yet another dismissal against the run of play.
Kohli drove Kallis tepidly into cover’s hands, for India’s fifth wicket, ending his 181-ball essay and leaving Rahane and Dhoni to negotiate the second new ball, which was only a few overs away. Tahir and Duminy had generously allowed Rahane to settle in, but he still faced a couple of dicey moments with the new cherry late in the day. Dhoni too struggled against the second new ball, surviving each time he got into a tangle. The pair ensured that India would end Day 1 five wickets down, and no more. Day 2 can turn out to be another story altogether.
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