India 272 for 3 (Rahul 122*, Agarwal 60, Ngidi 3-45) vs South Africa
With his fifth Test century outside Asia, KL Rahul
led India to a position of dominance in the first Test of the series. On an uncharacteristically flat track, South Africa’s attack, for some reason missing Duanne Olivier
, lacked the menace or the discipline to create indecision from the batters. A lot of the questions India’s batting had over them coming into the series were questions posed by extremely tough conditions they almost always play in. The moment they got a good batting pitch, they ended the day at 272 for 3.
Rahul and Mayank Agarwal
– Boxing Day buddies from Bangalore – put together India’s first century opening stand in South Africa since 2010 before Rahul added two stands worth 82 each with Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane. South Africa managed to draw just the 60 false responses in the whole day. You expect at least one an over from a good attack on a decent Test surface.
Rahul made a forgettable debut on Boxing Day in 2014
, but lost his spot to his friend and Karnataka team-mate Agarwal in the 2018 Boxing Day Test
. Three years later, they found themselves opening together in this Boxing Day Test, and their captain won the toss to allow them first use of a pitch that tends to be at its most challenging in the first and the fourth innings.
Rahul will be the first one to concede Agarwal’s was the more fluent innings, but he also got a few more loose balls to get going. Even as the signs of a flat track were apparent in the early exchanges, left-arm Marco Jansen
debuted with a set of half-volleys, going for three boundaries in the 10th over and giving Agarwal a head start.
Rahul might not have had the fluency of Agarwal, but he did most things expert batters do in scoring Test hundreds: leave well, defend with soft hands, wasn’t pushed back by short balls, took toll of half-volleys and had some luck. The highlight of the innings was the leave, which if you are not looking closely might lead you to believe he has been beaten. When the ball was new and bowled in good areas, Rahul kept playing well inside the line. He only actually played when the bowlers moved to the line under his head.
Did South Africa make the right choice in Marco Jansen over Duanne Olivier?
In the post-lunch session, Lungi Ngidi
provided South Africa a look-in with two wickets in two balls. The first one nipped back from short of a length, and took a review that neither the on-field umpires nor the batter could believe. Having sent Agarwal back, though, South Africa looked like they had a plan for the first time since the early few overs. They had a backward short leg and a short square leg for Cheteshwar Pujara, who got out
bat-pad for only his second golden duck in Test cricket, the first being a run-out to Ngidi at the same ground.
This was the period when uneven bounce began to trouble Rahul. One short ball stopped on him, and climbed for a top edge to long leg, but fell just short of the fielder. Another jumped up, and sailed over the cordon. Even so, Rahul showed no adventure against the short ball, choosing to wait for the loose ones, which he kept getting. With two quick wickets and Virat Kohli at the wicket, South Africa chose to bowl Kagiso Rabada for only four overs in the middle session.
Kohli looked in excellent touch too. He trusted the pitch enough to pull out the cover drive away from his body, crashing Rabada through the off side in the final session. This was a spell where Rabada went flat out and asked questions of Rahul with short-pitched bowling. Rahul, who had identified tennis-ball bounce as the main threat
before the Test, refused to hook and was okay wearing a few if needed. In the 63rd over, when Rabada tried the full ball after two searing bouncers, Rahul was forward, playing a crunchy drive through the covers to reach 78.
Rahul got to 90 with a four and a six off Keshav Maharaj in the 66th over of the innings, forcing a double change with Rabada, too, done with his post-tea spell. With the double change came two maiden overs, and then Kohli drove at a really wide delivery. It was so wide he actually did well to edge Ngidi to first slip.
In the final exchanges, Rahul calmly spent 12 overs in the 90s, taking singles to get to 99, and then square-driving Maharaj to bring up a hundred in a sixth different country. Under-pressure Rahane found a few Christmas gifts early in the innings, hitting six boundaries in the first 35 balls he faced. The new ball brought no new threat as the two saw India through to stumps.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo