Only 59 overs were possible on Day 1 of the Boxing Day Test between South Africa and India in Centurion. However, there was no shortage of edge-of-the-seat action, thanks to the pitch at the Super Sport Park. It seamed consistently and swung a bit in the air throughout. There was extra bounce but the ball also kept low on occasions. Overall, the typical Centurion pitch. The obvious question still remained: How does one bat on this pitch?
South Africa won the toss and opted to bowl. India were 24/3 before a 68-run stand between Virat Kohli and Shreyas Iyer resurrected the visitors. They were soon 121/6 with a mini-collapse to begin the second session and then recovered again, finishing at 208/8 before rain forced early stumps.
KL Rahul (70 not out) and Kagiso Rabada (5/44) were the star players of the day from either side. The hosts would be miffed not wrapping up the Men in Blue on Day 1, given they had a terrific first hour. They missed out on opportunities, dropping both Kohli and Iyer when they were in single digits, and lacked discipline in phases.
India may look to swell their total to 250 with the help of Rahul out there. It will still be the lowest first innings total at the venue in its last four Tests but the extreme conditions for batting in this Test, followed by Temba Bavuma’s hamstring injury, can turn it into a good score on this deck. While India’s first innings fortunes will be decided on Day 2, we look at some of the significant takeaways from Day 1.
Enough with the pull, Rohit?
Rohit Sharma was the first Indian batter to get out today (December 26) and it was probably the most frustrating dismissal of the day’s play.
His keenness to find runs through his most authoritative stroke is now turning into a trap. Since 2021, Rohit has fallen to the pull/hook stroke six times now which translates to one-third of his total dismissals against pace. He averages 36.8 runs/dismissal with that stroke.
The Indian skipper took the first bait today. Looking good in his 14-ball stay, Rohit went after the first genuine short ball angling into his body. He pulled the ball fine, straight to the fielder placed to take the catch. On a pitch where the ball was doing plenty from the good length area, Rohit fell to a benign short delivery.
In another pattern around these dismissals, Rohit has seemed like timing the ball with the pull strokes rather than bludgeoning it into the stands. With the fielders in the deep, Rohit could sift between playing the pull and curbing his natural instincts by focusing on whether he has the time to instill power into the stroke.
Rahul passes another Test
So far so good, KL Rahul is a big reason India can breathe a sigh of relief after a testing Day 1. He walked in to bat minutes after Lunch, at 92/4. Eight overs later, India were 121/6, leaving him as the only reliable batter in the middle.
Rahul returned to the Test side in August 2021, proving himself as an opener in challenging overseas conditions. His form dipped at the wrong time, compelling India to replace him with Shubman Gill at the top of the order. Now a combination of his form with the bat as a middle-order batter in white-ball cricket, his wicketkeeping in those games and Rishabh Pant’s unavailability made a case for his comeback but in a new role as a wicketkeeping batter at number six.
In only his second innings at number six (he last batted at this spot on his debut in 2014), Rahul is the only batter to score a fifty on Day 1, had the highest strike rate (66.7) for an Indian batter in the top seven and also had the lowest false shot percentage (16.1%) which speaks for his quality on an unpredictable pitch.
Sticking to his strength, ie playing the ball late, Rahul scored plenty of runs in the cover and the square region in the off side. It allowed him not to get bogged down. He had a strike rate of 46.7 in the first 30 balls of his innings but later scored at over 60. It supported India’s cause to keep the scoreboard ticking as the visitors had a run rate of 3.52 at the end of the day’s play.
The last time India played a Test in Centurion, Rahul scored a match-winning 123 in his resurrection as a Test opener. He is still 30 runs away but has passed another test, as a number six batter. It remains to be seen what he does as a glovesman.
Rabada reigns Centurion
Carrying a heel injury, Kagiso Rabada’s participation in the Test was under the scanner. He not only featured but dismantled India with his first-wicket haul against the Men in Blue in any format. Rabada ended the day’s play with figures of 5/44 in 17 overs.
The 28-year old drew the first blood but his biggest contribution came in the second session. Rabada broke the promising fourth-wicket partnership between Iyer and Kohli right after Lunch, sending both set batters back. He castled Iyer with a fullish delivery that jagged back in sharply. A few minutes later, he found Kohli’s edge with a lovely outswinger.
He also hit India in the lower middle order, accounting for the wickets of Ravichandran Ashwin and Shardul Thakur.
While each of Nandre Burger, Marco Jansen (both bowled a heavy proportion of deliveries around the leg stump), and Gerald Coetzee (economy of 4.4) struggled for control, Rabada kept it around the off stump. Consequently, he generated 33% of false shots, the highest for any bowler during the day’s play.
Centurion is Rabada’s favorite ground. In eight Tests, he has 55 wickets, the most for him at any venue. He has four Test five-fors here and averages only 16.5 runs/wicket. Even during his lean patch in 2019-2020, Rabada had a seven-wicket haul in Centurion against England which was his most fruitful Test of that phase. Imagine, Rabada missing out on this Test.
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Bastab K Parida