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‘Who’d have thought we’d see the day/ In an away Test, India holding sway’. Now that this spontaneous burst of creativity has been tactfully done away with, it is time to hand out the bouquets. Or is it? It might just be. For on Friday, India determinedly set about correcting their dismal away record with a performance that showed the spine of their young Test side.
Having dismissed South Africa barely 10 overs into the morning session, for a lead of 36 runs, India, through Cheteshwar Pujara (135 batting) and Virat Kohli (77 batting), swelled their advantage to a healthy 320 at close, ensuring in the bargain that the Proteas will have to get the highest ever fourth innings score at The Wanderers if they are to nick an unlikely win.
It was a commanding display, one whose unexpectedness (India dominating a Test match on South Africa soil, really?) imbued the day’s effort with a significance that was weightier that the combined heft of wickets taken and runs scored. If it was heartening to watch comeback man Zaheer Khan lead the bowling attack with a deadly three-wicket burst in the first session, it was equally gratifying to see Pujara and Kohli bully the opposition with an unbroken 191-run union off just 44.1 overs late in the day.
Pujara, deprived of a long innings by an unfortunate run-out in the first essay, was the picture of perfection. He scored nine off his first 64 balls, reached his half-century in 127 balls, and needed just 41 more deliveries to reach a sixth Test century, his first overseas, which was gained through a cover driven four against Dale Steyn. The Saurashtra youngster did survive a couple of run-out chances early in his tenure and was also dropped by Imran Tahir off his own bowling when he was on 51. That aside, his time in the middle was marked by the purest principles of building an innings: patience, shot selection and opportunism.
It was his breakneck stand with Kohli that shoved South Africa down a hole and sprinkled dirt on top, as India plundered 175 runs in just 38 overs in the last session. Kohli had walked in at Murali Vijay’s fall and looked like he was merely continuing from where he had left after his first innings century. It must be mentioned here that Vijay too was the epitome of discretion during his 94-ball 39, a reverie that allowed India to recover from Shikhar Dhawan’s early dismissal.
Dhawan, an electric limited-overs bat in subcontinental conditions, became Vernon Philander’s 100th Test wicket when he edged the seamer to Jacques Kallis at second slip. Vijay’s wicket was far less dramatic: a feather down the leg-side and catching practice for AB de Villiers. It was anybody’s game with India on 93/2, although the hosts were dealt a blow after Morne Morkel, arguably their best bowler over the past three days, twisted his ankle while fielding. He was later diagnosed with a Grade 1 ligament tear on his ankle and is expected to be out for the next seven to ten days.
This meant Graeme Smith’s only options, once Steyn and Philander and Kallis went flat, were the spinners Imran Tahir and JP Duminy. Both were creamed disdainfully, first by the Pujara-Vijay combination, then by the Pujara-Kohli enterprise. The sight of De Villiers discarding his big gloves and bowling the last over to lunch was symbolic of South Africa’s utter helplessness to take what were being laughed off as ‘walking wickets’ ahead of the tour. If at all there were those kind of batsmen on show – the ‘walking wickets’, if you please – they were inhabiting the Proteas’ own camp, much to the delight of one Zaheer Khan.
Having bowled superbly all Thursday for just one scalp, Zaheer was rewarded with three of the four wickets that fell in the morning, as India surged into a vital 36-run lead. Philander, resuming on 47, spanked a boundary on the first ball and then another in the same over. Often a victim of lower-order antics, India, it appeared, would be facing another vexatious spell of play.
As it happened, it took them less than 10 overs to barrel through the rearguard. Zaheer provided the opening, a back of length, angled across off-stump projectile that Philander edged to first slip, where the usually clumsy R. Ashwin managed to hang on to the chance. Not much later, Rohit Sharma, who like Ashwin had grassed one in the first innings, grabbed Steyn’s clumsy fend to an Ishant bouncer. The messy-haired Delhi paceman was now on four wickets. But his senior bowling partner gave him nary a chance to get five. Zaheer made short work of du Plessis and Morkel, finishing with 4/88, the perfect complement to Ishant’s 4/79.
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