Early on in the middle session, Dale Steyn, the top wicket-taker at the Wanderers, tried to test India’s new No 4, Virat Kohli, who had stepped into Sachin Tendulkar’s shoes.
He had a fielder each on the fine leg an d square leg ropes. Virat, who had been bombarded with talk of vulnerability against bouncers, had barely settled into the slot, and was cautious. As expected, a short one came about but Virat pulled it to the fence.
It was an answer to his critics and an example of discretion.
Towards the end of Wedne-sday’s play, he worked JP Duminy towards mid-wicket for his fifth hundred, perhaps the most important one, and there came another example of maturity.
As he let out his emotions by jumping midway on the wicket, there were no expletives or roar, just the arms spread like wings for takeoff in his new role. Virat was the reason India managed to end the first day’s play at 255 for five.
Coming of age?
The knock of 119, his highest in Tests, had come after MS Dhoni elected to bat on a track the Indians were supposed to be scared of. But while the other batsmen had difficulty against the South Africa pacemen, and India were reduced to 24/2, Virat looked in the groove, almost as seasoned and brilliant as perhaps Tendulkar in his prime.
On Tuesday, the match eve, Dhoni had kept his No 4 under wraps, perhaps to keep the pressure off the Delhi lad.
“Well, you put your best player in Tendulkar’s spot. I think he has batted very well,” said Shaun Pollock, former South Africa captain. Kepler Wessels, another ex-captain, added, “Yeah, he’s been brilliant. He looks set for that spot.”
While Virat attacked, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane were the ideal foil, being circumspect and careful, helping stitch valuable partnerships.
This wicket, according to batsmen who have played on it, is tough because you can either leave the ball or play your shots. It is a tough balance and Virat managed it well.
Leaving the ball was his mantra as the fiery South Africa pacemen, often guilty of bowling a bit wide, couldn’t find an edge. The first three balls were testing but also indicated how Virat was sorted in facing variety --- he let the first one go past, played the next sharp one with soft hands and ducked under the third which was a bouncer.
His strike rate of 70 and the number of runs off boundaries (64 out of the first 100) proved his strokeplay was on the money. There were Tendulkar’s
straight and effortless drives and it was an pity that the maestro had to decline an invite to attend Wednesday’s play.
Man for tough times
Just as surprising was the fact that 119 is his highest Test score. Pujara, Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay and Rohit Sharma have higher individual scores. Virat’s previous highest, 116, too was a knock of brilliance, coming on a dreadful tour Down Under. That and the 75 earlier at Perth, which launched him against a good attack in testing conditions, comprised a chunk of India’s total just like this knock.
The relief for Virat was leg-spinner Imran Tahir. He was brought in to add variety but his ordinary bowling proved good for the Indian, whose first shots of dominance came in the leggie’s first over just before lunch.
Tahir leaked 42 runs in seven overs while part-timer JP Duminy gave away 30 off six overs. 72 runs in 12 overs out of 213 at the last drinks break showed the Proteas had missed the plot.