Century on elevation to No. 4 steers plucky India to 255 for 5 at close on day one of first Test
When India won the World Cup in 2011, Sachin Tendulkar was carried around his home ground, the Wankhede Stadium. Virat Kohli, doing a snap interview on the field, produced a gem: “He has carried the burden of our nation on his shoulders for the past 21 years. So it is time that we carried him,” said Kohli, not long after hoisting his idol onto his shoulders.
At the Wanderers on Wednesday (December 18), on the opening day of the first Test against South Africa, Kohli slotted into Tendulkar’s beloved No. 4 position with a century of the highest class. On the back of Kohli’s effort, India reached 255 for 5, very acceptable returns given the circumstances.
When Kohli walked out to bat, India was precariously poised. Shikhar Dhawan had top-edged, pulling a ball that was on to him much too quickly for the shot, and M Vijay nicked to the ‘keeper, having played only two scoring shots in the 42 balls he faced. At 24 for 2, there was an unmistakable sense of déjà vu. But, before you could say here we go again, Kohli was off the blocks.
While the batsmen before him struggled to score at 2.5 runs an over, Kohli went at a run-a-ball, picking off the singles with ease and producing some gorgeous shots when the loose ball was on offer. The control he displayed when pulling Jacques Kallis off the front foot, and the balance he displayed when covering the swing and driving a full ball from Dale Steyn back past the bowler, were confirmation – if any were needed – that this was a rare talent at the top of his game.
Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara had added 89 for the third wicket, calming nerves in India's dressing-room, when a horrible mix-up resulted in a gifted wicket. Kohli, having dabbed Imran Tahir to the onside, beckoned Pujara for a single before changing his mind. Tahir fielded on his follow through and Hashim Amla took off the bails to send Pujara on his way.
Kohli, visibly gutted at having sold his partner a dummy, needed to calm down quickly, and to his credit he managed this, sweetly timing Tahir through extra cover before getting into perfect position to square-drive Morne Morkel in front of point. Morkel was easily the bowler of the day, getting steepling bounce and forcing the ball to straighten after pitching as he repeatedly beat the bat.
Rohit Sharma took guard with a Test average of 288, and left having all but halved that, gifting his wicket to Vernon Philander, who came back strongly in a second spell where he hit the right lengths. Rohit drove airily with no movement of the feet, and the resultant edge was comfortably taken by AB de Villiers.
For the umpteenth time in the day, India was at the crossroads, having lost its fourth wicket with only 151 on the board. Ajinkya Rahane was welcomed to the crease by a couple of Tahir full tosses that were duly dispatched, and before South Africa’s attack could turn the screws, India's innings was back on track.
Kohli continued to bat at a couple of planes higher than his colleagues, the hallmark of his innings being how focussed he was on putting away the bad deliveries. Leaving the good ones alone was half the job, but Kohli did not allow the scoreboard to get stuck, and cashed in every time the ball was too short or too full.
When he whipped JP Duminy through midwicket, scrambled the first one and returned for a second, Kohli leapt into the air with energy and enthusiasm that belied the fact that he had faced 140 balls to get to three figures. A long celebration followed, leaving no one in doubt about how much his fifth Test hundred meant to Kohli. After getting to the landmark, Kohli pressed on past his previous Test best, 116, before falling anticlimactically. Reaching for a Kallis delivery, Kohli could not keep the ball down and picked out short cover, a soft dismissal for a batsman who had played hard cricket all day.
Rahane, brought into the eleven to bolster the batting in a departure from India’s successful home strategy of using Ravindra Jadeja as a bowling allrounder, justified his inclusion, accumulating an unbeaten 43.
India would have loved to have ended the day with Kohli unbeaten, but when it sees that the average first-day score from the last five Tests at the Wanderers was 251 for 9, it will realise that a base has been built even if much work still remains. When India sees that it picked off 77 runs from the 13 overs of spin bowled, it will realise that things could have been very different on another day.