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NEW DELHI: The jury is out on Virat Kohli’s decision to bat on a wildly unpredictable Wanderers surface, but another poor Indian batting performance has done little to dim the radiance of a team seemingly at odds with the conditions and how to counter South Africa’s fast bowlers.
Only three players got into double-digits as India were bowled out for 187 on day one of the third Test, which would have been far less if not for some generosity from the home side. Faf du Plessis did not opt for a review that would have sent Cheteshwar Pujara back without scoring, Vernon Philander and AB de Villiers gave Kohli lives on 11 and 32 and Ajinkya Rahane was given a life when Philander over-stepped.
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Is 187 a decent total given the unpredictable nature of the pitch? If it proves so, then India can thank Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who replaced R Ashwin and first injected a crucial 30 as the last six wickets fell for 43 runs, and then took an early wicket with immaculate seam position.
From another opening failure that left them at 13/2, the tourists were hauled into a position of stability by Kohli and Pujara, but once the two were dislodged – and it took some doing to dislodge Pujara, who was bruised and battered by a five-man pace attack – the innings gave way spectacularly. Pujara, whose 50 off 179 deliveries was one of the toughest innings by an Indian batsman in ages, was extracted in a harum-scarum period after tea in which three wickets fell without a run added.
Kohli lived a charmed life, let off twice in surprisingly butter-fingered manner to stroke his way to a peppy 54, and Pujara wore bouncers and in-cutters like a boxer taking punches in the tenth round. Their partnership was worth 84 in 34 overs, and though both men survived notable moments of good fortune, their resistance gave India room to breathe on a biting pitch.
Batting with bloodless resolve, Pujara – who took 54 deliveries to score his first run – was the steely backbone of India’s innings. It has been not so much a circumspect effort as one that hinged on sheer bullheadedness on a pitch offering sharp lateral movement, and one that steadily helped India edge away from two early wickets. He stood firm with Kohli for 34 overs, weathering a storm of bouncers and sharp in-swingers that left him smarting; it was Pujara’s most considered innings of a poor tour, and helped India see out the afternoon session for the loss of just one wicket.
Following a miserly and testing opening spell of 8-7-1-1, in which he nipped out KL Rahul for 0 and nearly had Pujara lbw with some exaggerated seam movement, Philander made an absolute mess of a catch. Kohli was hurried into a pull shot by Kagiso Rabada, but the resultant top edge was spilled by Philander running around from mid-off. The bowler was left to fume, for it was a wicket richly deserved in that fiery spell which saw Murali Vijay (8) nick Rabada to Quinton de Kock.
Stray offerings from Andile Phehlukwayo and Rabada were put away in jaw-dropping style by Kohli to relieve some of the pressure, but there were no such gifts for Pujara. He struggled to get off the mark, but crucially saw off Philander. That task completed, Pujara began to figure out how to score runs. Each of South Africa’s pace bowlers beat Pujara’s edge and tested his resolve outside off stump. Philander troubled him the most, repeatedly trying to get him to play a faulty drive, with one searing yorker even jarring Pujara’s hand as he jammed it out. Despite the constant threat of movement and uneven bounce, Pujara played with great selectivity against an attack bristling with intent.
Lungi Ngidi also bowled a masterly first spell (5-4-3-0) in which he hit Pujara in the midriff and rapped him on the front pad – a review would have seen the batsman out on 0 – and beat Kohli’s bat. At the lunch break, Pujara had found five runs from 66 deliveries faced.
Not long into the second session, de Villiers spilled a straightforward catch at second slip when Kohli flashed away from his body at Morne Morkel. India’s captain continued to stand tall and play away from the body, at one time chasing a delivery that was almost called wide. In between the plays and misses and wafts were some gorgeous punches, which only Kohli could have produced. He reached his half-century off 113 balls, with a serene pulled off Rabada for four, before one drive too many resulted in a thick outside edge which nestled in de Villiers’ lap at third slip.
Rahane settled in cautiously, three runs from 18 balls, until Philander found the outer edge, only for replays to show that he had overstepped. Eight minutes before tea, Rahane was given lbw against Morkel. Having got his half-century off 173 balls, Pujara was at last forced into a faulty shot by Phehlukwayo. Parthiv Patel chased a Morkel lifter and nicked to de Kock, who then took an excellent running catch when Hardik Pandya top-edged Phelukwayo. Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma followed, but a plucky Bhuvneshwar frustrated South Africa with his approach: making room, using his feet and chipping wide of fielders. He was last out, mistiming a pull shot to midwicket.
This gave South Africa a little over 20 minutes to bat out the day. In that time, Bhuvneshwar removed Aidan Markram for 2 to spice up the contest. India are not out of this Test, but could rue another sloppy batting effort.