Just a few days back it appeared that it would be impossible to fill the big boots of Sachin Tendulkar, but Virat Kohli, who came in to bat at No. 4 - the place which belonged to Tendulkar till India's last Test - on Wednesday put all those doubts to rest, smashing his fifth Test century and took India to 255 for 5 at stumps on the opening day of the first Test in Johannesburg.
Barring a few early hiccups, Kohli's innings was fluent, with every loose ball getting the severe treatment it deserved. The way he and Ajinkya Rahane applied themselves, it left South Africa shocked as Graeme Smith was forced to go defensive on various occasions of the Indian innings. Kohli's innings also hid the frailties of the other batsmen. Except Ajinkya Rahane (43*), the other batsmen could not make substantial scores after spending good time in the middle.
By the time Kohli departed, he had already put India in a position from where they could go on to post a challenging score.
Earlier in the day, MS Dhoni took a bold decision of batting first in conditions that would have certainly helped the pacers. And the South Africa quartet of quicks did exploit it well, troubling the Indian batsmen with lateral movement. Both Shikhar Dhawan (13) and Murali Vijay (6), to their credit, faced the early burst from Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander with caution and grit, leaving alone everything outside off stump.
Both Steyn and Philander bowled occasional short deliveries in the first eight overs. But Steyn began the ninth over with a barrage of short balls to Dhawan, who could not control a pull off the first ball that went to four to backward square leg, tentatively dealt with the next two before playing another mistimed pull that was held comfortably at fine leg by Imran Tahir.
But the pick of the bowler in the morning session was Morne Morkel, who got the steep bounce from the surface. He troubled Vijay from the beginning, beating the right-hander's bat on a couple of occasions. Morkel would have got Vijay in his second over as the batsman could not control a rising delivery and dabbed it to short leg, where Hashim Amla could not take a sharp chance. But the tall pacer got his man when he had Vijay nicked a full delivery to AB de Villers.
With the score 24 for 2, India had their two more accomplished batsmen in the middle. And after a tentative start, both started to play their shots on any possible opportunity. Kohli got off the mark with a pull off Jacques Kallis. Pujara too defended well and kept the scoreboard moving as India reached lunch at 70 for 2.
South Africa kept the pressure after lunch, with both Pujara and Kohli being cautious. Kohli broke the shackles, cutting a loose wide delivery from Philander to the point boundary. He pummelled a rather short delivery from Steyn towards the square leg fence, ruffling the paceman who had a few words to say. Morkel came in for his second spell after the break and was dispatched towards the point boundary. He brought up his fifty with a four off a long hop from Tahir.
So well Pujara and Kohli were batting that the only way one felt a wicket would fall would be from a run out and that's what happened. Kohli pushed a Tahir's short-of-a-length delivery towards leg and called Pujara for a single before turning back. Tahir did extremely well to get to the ball quickly, throwing it back to Amla, who dislodged the bails at the non-striker's end with ease.
Rohit Sharma was softened up by Steyn in the preceding ODIs but he looked very compact early on in his innings. He left plenty of balls outside off stump and fetched runs on balls that demanded to be hit. His game revolves around playing the ball late and that helped him in dealing with the South Africa pacers. But he could not control himself, slashing hard at a Philander delivery that he should have left alone as De Villiers did the rest.
Rahane got going with a flick through midwicket for four and two full-toss from Tahir took him to 12 soon as India went into tea at 164 for 4.
Just like the second session, Kohli began the final session with a punch off the back foot through covers for four. In Rahane, he got the perfect foil who looked accomplish in dealing with bouncers from Morkel and others. His innings was more about graft while Kohli was flying at the other end. Seeing the comfort with which India played Tahir, Graeme Smith was forced to use the part-time offspin of JP Duminy and Kohli saw an opportunity to make use of that. After getting to 98 with a cut for four, he flicked Duminy to midwicket for a couple and get to his fifth Test century.
Jacques Kallis provided the home side the prized wicket of the centurion when he lured Kohli playing a drive away from his body, getting him caught in the covers off Duminy.
Dhoni (17*) cut Morkel and drove Steyn as he and Rahane kept India unscathed as the day came to a close after being played under artificial lights for the major part of last hour.
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