The Kookaburra ball usually displays wear and tear in the post-lunch session. But Kagiso Rabada was infusing real life for South Africa on the first day of the Cape Town Test. Many deliveries would tease the batter to play the line before shaping away. There were plays and misses galore. Rabada was up against India’s best batter, Virat Kohli, who was playing an uncharacteristically patient innings, but of great quality.
Their head-to-head battle was the highlight of Day 1 at the Newlands stadium, with the series on the line. Kohli excelled. The rest of India’s batting was neither disciplined nor spectacular as the visitors were bundled out for 223. It has left them with at best a fighting chance to take the first innings lead, Jasprit Bumrah having got skipper Dean Elgar early. South Africa were 17/1 at stumps.
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With clouds kissing the Table Mountain in the background, Rabada seemed to be bowling some fast leg-breaks, figuratively so because a lot of his deliveries were clocked around 140 kph. Ask Ajinkya Rahane. With the world watching his form with a microscope, Rabada bowled a quick one on off-stump and got it to hold the line. Rahane played neither front nor back. Just before Rahane left India precariously placed at 116/4 after winning the toss, Rabada had been playing tricks with Kohli too.
The India skipper was going through a comprehensive examination, often beaten in forward defence. Rabada would bowl the right line outside off-stump, almost the right length, or a touch fuller. In better nick, Kohli perhaps would have edged one of them. But not on Tuesday as he showed great discipline to leave those deliveries. Amid that focus on defence though Kohli brought out a pull shot, top-edging for six.
One of the features of Kohli’s 79 (201 balls, 12×4, 1×6) was that he allowed no scars of previous mistakes to enter his mind space. South Africa had to change tack and attack his stumps after failing to snap him outside off—71% of his dismissals in the past two years have come there—through the opening session.
The first 15 deliveries Kohli faced were dot balls. South Africa pacers continued to try and tempt him outside off. Invite drives, pushes or pokes. Right arm over the wicket aside, left-arm Marco Jansen even went around the wicket to exploit the angle across the bat. Kohli wasn’t going to be lured. He left alone 64% of deliveries outside off-stump in the morning. He had made the slightest tweak in technique – making an effort to get the front foot to go straighter than across in his back-and-across trigger.
Ending more on middle than off-stump, Kohli looked a lot more self-assured. Interestingly, Kohli didn’t keep out any shot. Quite a few of his 12 fours were driven through cover or straight. He mostly went for drives, but attacked mostly when they bowled full to him.
However, the rest of the Indian batting group failed to do justice to Kohli’s innings. KL Rahul couldn’t resist a poke at a teasing Duane Olivier delivery to be caught behind in the 12th over, after pressure was built through 24 dot balls. Agarwal’s hard hands were his undoing as Rabada, who bowled an equally impressive first spell, got him caught at slips.
The one partnership of note Kohli could stitch together was for the third wicket (62) with Cheteshwar Pujara, who again showed a new-found urgency. Pujara didn’t waste any bad balls, frequently finding boundaries through the flick. Jansen though found the outside edge with his around the wicket angle on 43. Rishabh Pant didn’t slog wildly this time, but couldn’t keep a cut shot down at 27, gifting the impressive Jansen (3/55) his wicket.
Kohli was ninth man out, and it will go down as another caught-behind dismissal to Rabada (4/73). But by then Kohli had begun to search for quick runs as he was fast running out of partners.