With just a few minutes to go for the lunch break, Lungi Ngidi – the tall and powerful fast bowler who had ripped the Indian batting order apart in his match-winning performance in Centurion – ran in to bowl at the Wanderers in Johannesburg. His delivery drifted down the leg side and the batsman, India’s number three Cheteshwar Pujara, got a deft touch on the ball and flicked it to fine-leg. Even as Pujara began his 22-yard journey to complete a run, the sparse but vocal crowd in the stadium rose to their feet, screaming and cheering the single all the way until the batsman had reached the non-striker’s end.
At the other end of the pitch, Virat Kohli too applauded the moment, even gesturing to his batting partner to raise his bat in celebration. Pujara, looking visibly embarrassed by now, simply smiled and hoisted his thumb to the dressing room, where everyone from his team-mates to the support staff were caught giggling. Perhaps never before in the history of Indian Test cricket has a proper top-order batsman received such attention for simply getting off the mark. But this was no ordinary single. It was Pujara’s first run in a long and arduous session; his only run in 54 balls. Such was Pujara’s morning. Such was India’s day.
Had Pujara not consumed as many balls and survived that spell of play on a most difficult pitch, India would’ve been bowled out for a whole lot lesser than 187; most certainly 50 runs shorter – Pujara’s contribution to the low scoring innings. But Pujara’s value was more than the runs he scored. His very presence in the middle – shaky in the first session and assured in the second – ensured that captain Kohli (the best Indian batsman in this series by quite a distance) had someone to stitch a partnership with.
In stark contrast to Pujara’s dogged approach, Kohli played a fluent but chancy innings of 54 – filled with strokes and dropped chances. Apart from Pujara and Kohli, only Bhuvneshwar Kumar – throwing his bat around at the end of the Indian innings – got to double digits. Without the three of them, India wouldn’t have come close to putting up a three-digit team score.
“On this wicket, even once you were in you were never really settled,” Pujara said to SuperSport TV at the end of Day One, putting in perspective just how difficult it was to bat, let alone bat 179 balls. “We were just surviving there. There was plenty of deviation and lateral movement of the ball on offer on this pitch, and I think it will only get tougher to bat on as the Test proceeds.”
This was also the reason, then, that the Indian team management chose to bat first on a green top, despite playing five fast bowlers in the eleven for the first time in this already-lost series. Ravichandran Ashwin, India’s off-spinner, made way for Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who joined Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya to form a rare, five-pronged Indian pace attack. Which is why it was also a tad bit surprising when Kohli won the toss and chose to bat first, exposing himself and his batsmen on a cold and windy morning to South Africa’s very own five-pronged quick attack of Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Ngidi and Andile Phehlukwayo. Few Indian captains in the past would’ve taken such a brave call, but it was a move brimming with Kohli’s favourite word – intent. Something the Indian openers showed very little of.
Before this third and final Test in Johannesburg began, India’s highest opening partnership was 30. Today they achieved their lowest of 7, with KL Rahul playing down the wrong line and eventually inside-edging Philander to the ‘keeper for nought. This was just the fourth over of the day and in walked Pujara. He was nearly dismissed early in his innings, as the South Africans reviewed the umpire’s not out call after Philander had trapped him on his knee-roll. Thanks to the excessive bounce on offer on this pitch right through the day, Hawkeye inferred that the ball was clipping the bails and Pujara survived. At the other end, though, Murali Vijay didn’t.
Playing well away from his body, Vijay poked at wide Rabada ball that he should’ve left alone and India were now looking down the barrel at 13/2. Here, Kohli joined Pujara and the two men who scored hundreds on this very Jo’burg track the last time India toured South Africa put up a semblance of a fight. It was an abnormal Kohli innings right from the get-go, what with the captain missing and edging more balls outside his off stump in the first hour of this innings than in the entire series put together. Sometimes he left balls alone on length and some other times he misread the bounce and was nearly dismissed. On one such occasion, while batting on 11, Kohli decided to hook Rabada and ended up spooning a leading edge to Philander at mid-off. Philander dived to reach it but only ended up falling over the ball.
At this point, Pujara had faced 50 balls and not scored a run. So Kohli decided to score for both of them. He drove Rabada through cover and cut Phehlukwayo past point in quick succession to pick up two boundaries. These, of course, were India’s only two fours in the first session.
Kohli was dropped soon after lunch when he edged Morkel to the second slip, AB de Villiers. Now de Villiers doesn’t drop too many and he didn’t when Kohli next gave him a chance in the same position. Ngidi, bowling a nagging line, forced Kohli to play at one outside off-stump and de Villiers recoiled during his incredible catch like he had taken a bullet to his chest. The huddled South Africans, however, knew that it was India that had been gunned down.
Pujara began playing some of his finest strokes in patches just before tea – square cutting Philander elegantly on one leg for boundaries twice in succession. Post tea, the runs came thick and fast, in Pujara’s world anyway, where he looked bent on scoring and not simply surviving. But just when it seemed like he had seen off the threat, an in-cutting ball from Phuhlekwayo kissed his outside edge and came to rest in Quinton de Kock’s gloves. A minute before Pujara's dismissal, India were 144/4. A few minutes after they were 144/7. From there on, a team score of 187 runs, on this pitch, against this attack, must only be considered a miracle.
Brief scores: Johannesburg, Day 1 -- India 187 all out in 77 overs (V Kohli 54, C Pujara 50; A Phuhlekwayo 2/21, V Philander 2/31) vs South Africa 6 for one in 6 overs (D Elgar 4 not out; B Kumar 1/3)