Rahul steadies India’s turbulence

At the SuperSport Arena, Indian cricket moved from darkness that had shrouded it for a fortnight, to light. A supreme first day performance with the bat, rare as they come in South Africa, brought the focus back on cricket, as it should be. Dispelling in one compelling day of cricket, the scandals and slander that had dominated the build-up, the negativity that had piled up, and the doubts and dervishes that lingered on.

It was a day out of a dream. The openers not only survived the first session without damage, but also stitched a 117-run partnership, just the third instance that an Indian opening pair had put on a century-stand on these difficult shores. It was the first time in 14 years that the openers survived the first session of the first morning of a first Test outside Asia (India have been historically shoddy starters). To elaborate the positive thread, KL Rahul, unconquered on 122, illustrated that his hundred in England was not a one-off but the beginning of a truly fruitful phase.

His partner, Mayank Agarwal showed that he is more than a home-track bully and could prosper in hostile bowling conditions. Equally significantly, the belabouring Ajinkya Rahane flowered, and looked to have reconquered his best touch, with a crisp 40 not out. Bearing the collective fruit of labour, India ended the day on a commanding 272/3, eight runs short of the highest score they managed in six innings during the last tour here.

Much of their supremacy owed to Rahul’s continuing resurgence as a genuinely high-class opening batsman. There has been so much to like about him since he first burst through—the non-violent aggression, the willowy languidness, and the non-plussed demeanour. All those vaunted traits had pundits stamp potential greatness on him. But it’s the resolve, and thus a blossoming maturity, that he had been demonstrating since the series in England that could clear his path to dizzying heights. Before the England series, he did make a few technical tweaks, like trimming his trigger movement and keeping his hands closer to the body than before, but it’s mental fortitude that shines through his revival.

Under the menacing, gloomy skies, he was almost ascetic in abstinence. Even when South Africa’s rusty bowlers erred in length, which they managed abundantly, his mind didn’t waver. He patiently left whatever that didn’t threaten his stumps. He resisted the temptation to cut and drive, or that instinctive poke outside the off-stump. Those that veered into his body were blunted with a dead defensive bat. It took 25 balls and an over-pitched gift from Kagiso Rabada to wink in the first of his 13 boundaries. By that time, he had already negotiated a probing spell from the South Africa talisman, one that included a futile review for a caught-behind off an awkward short-ball that he ducked under, with much difficulty.

Even as South Africa’s seamers progressively lost their intensity, and Agarwal latched on with a stream of boundaries to motor along, Rahul was content in his self-woven shell of caution. He built the first block of his innings solely through boundaries of delicious loose balls, mostly fullish balls, or sneaky tap-and-run singles. His first 47 runs ate up 126 balls. the next 43 came off 66 balls, before he decelerated towards the end, the last 33 soaking up 56 balls.

The understanding between him and Agarwal was telepathic, expectedly so as they have been teammates since age-group cricket. There was no strain of unhealthy race between them, as Rahul was happy just defending while Agarwal was keener on hitting boundaries. Both would have a chat whenever they thought their partner was unsettled.

Agarwal, perfect foil

Taking full toll on the rarely incisive bowling, Agarwal donned the aggressor role in the initial phase of their 244-ball stay. Fresh from a hundred and a half-century in his last Test, he was in buoyant mood, though he was not careless. Rather, he was more ruthless on anything that was marginally loose and within his range. The nervous debutant Marco Jansen was often at the receiving end—he was crunched for three boundaries in his first over in Test cricket—though Jansen almost had his revenge when Agarwal edged behind, unable to ride the steeply bounce the surface at times generated, but for the wicket-keeper Quinton de Kock to shell it. Thereafter, though, he was more alive to the devils the quickening-up pitch was throwing up as well as the corrective measures the South African seamers had sought. They made the Indian pair play at the ball more often, and drew a few edges and misses.

The newfound persistence of South Africa’s seamers, especially Lungi Ngidi, was rewarded, as he took out Agarwal and Cheteshwar Pujara off successive balls.

However, by then they were so exhausted of alternatives that they were forced to operate with Wiaan Mulder or Keshav Maharaj from one end. Rahul took on Maharaj with particular fondness, racing thus towards the 90s with a clutch of fours and a six, whereas Virat Kohli bedded in without any fuss. The pair added 82 off 171 balls to prevent a potential meltdown, as they had experienced in England, and it seemed they would carry India till stumps without any damage.

Then departed Kohli, playing a forgettable shot outside the off-stump off Ngidi, bringing joy and hope back on the South African faces. But it was short-lived as Rahane reeled out boundaries, batting like a millionaire rather than someone riding a career-threatening slump. In his company, Rahul completed his seventh Test hundred, with a raft of singles, though Dean Elgar had dangled the carrot by throwing in Maharaj. But Rahul was unmoved into a stroke of imprudence. He bided his time as he had for most part of his magnificent hundred. Then he began to bide his time again, seemingly in a quest to compensate for the time he had lost due to indifferent form.

South Africa’s lone hope to salvage the day was the second new ball and inducing a late collapse. But they were as erratic with the second new ball as they were with the first. Rahane and Rahul had few qualms in negotiating the phase—the only note of alarm was an edge that flew off Rahul off a Rabada ball that kicked off the surface—and they walked off the field with both joy and satisfaction after a near perfect first day of a first Test in difficult batting conditions. And symbolically, the sun shone through brightly over the arena, dispelling the darkness that had shrouded Indian cricket.

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