KL Rahul rides to the rescue after India’s stumble in 1st South Africa Test | Cricket


Lesson 101 of Day 1 batting at Centurion, or for that matter any place where facing fast bowling can be an exacting prospect, is to tighten the defence and take the lumps till runs start trickling in at an acceptable rate. Shardul Thakur wasn’t exactly pulling it off as elegantly as KL Rahul or Virat Kohli but it was worthwhile nevertheless.

India's KL Rahul plays a shot during Day 1 of the 1st Test against South Africa in the India tour of South Africa, 2023-24, at SuperSport Park, in Centurion on Tuesday(BCCI-X)
India’s KL Rahul plays a shot during Day 1 of the 1st Test against South Africa in the India tour of South Africa, 2023-24, at SuperSport Park, in Centurion on Tuesday(BCCI-X)

But a cursory glance at India’s first innings total of 208/8 at stumps will tell you not everybody treaded that line of caution at Centurion. Sure there was a surging burst from Kagiso Rabada that removed the free-flowing Shreyas Iyer and Virat Kohli within a space of five overs, dovetailed with the debuting Nandre Burger’s inspired dismissal of Yashasvi Jaiswal that triggered the denouement of India’s innings, but there is a lingering feeling of what could have been if the approach was more disciplined.

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“As a batting group, it was always going to be a challenging surface,” said India batting coach Vikram Rathour after bad light forced early close of play. “The wicket was under cover for a day. We would have loved to have a couple of more wickets in hand at the end of the day but I think we have done reasonably well. We have runs on the board.”

Some of the dismissals were moments of pure brilliance. Like Burger bowling quick, pitching up to Jaiswal and forcing him to drive a leaving delivery after Rabada and Marco Jansen softened him up with a barrage of short balls. Rabada deployed a similar plan for Kohli, peppering the length area five balls in a row before going fuller, angling in so that Kohli had to play at it, only to get an edge on the ball going away after pitching. Dream-buster however was the delivery that went the other way to Iyer, keeping low and skidding through to beat his inside edge and crash into his stumps. Equally unplayable was the Rabada delivery that kicked off length and reared up on Ravichandran Ashwin and took a leading edge to third slip. This being South Africa, none of those dismissals were unexpected.

Underwhelming however was the hook Rohit Sharma tried to manufacture in the fifth over of the day without getting under the ball enough. Or Shubman Gill poking a misdirected Burger delivery down the leg to wicketkeeper Kyle Verreynne. Seen in isolation, leaving that ball should have been common sense for Gill. Except this is South Africa, where scoring comes at a premium and so it couldn’t have been easy to leave that delivery alone.

But Rahul left, almost to a boring extent. The effectiveness of those leaves manifested through majestic boundaries and a resilient innings that should have ideally been the second coming of India’s first essay on this tour of South Africa. If his first boundary—slapping Rabada through deep backward square leg—was an assuring reminder of Rahul’s ability to stay on top of the ball even when he went on the backfoot, equally charming was his cover drive off Burger. He pulled and cheekily opened the face of the bat to run the ball through slips but also threw the kitchen sink at the bowler T20 style when the field was up.

“He is proving to be a man of crisis for us,” said Rathour. “He was very clear with his gameplan, defended the right balls, attacked the right balls.”

It was by no means a glitch-free innings though. His outside edge was repeatedly beaten, and earlier, a Burger snorter almost caught Rahul unaware. But the conviction with which Rahul adapted kept India in the game despite losing three wickets in the morning session, followed by four more in the post-lunch.

Had Kohli not shaped up to drive Rabada, India could have added more to that 68-run stand with Iyer. Except that it is precisely one of those shots that helps Kohli be Kohli. That and the flick, unleashed every time South Africa erred in their lines, Burger taking the brunt of that assault before he tried to go wide of off and got flayed again, this time through backward point.

Iyer looked thoroughly promising, making the most of an early reprieve from Jansen to flick everything that came on his boots, milking Gerald Coetzee for a four and six before Rabada intervened with a beauty. Equally courageous was the way Thakur stood his ground despite taking a blow to his helmet from Coetzee. Three boundaries in his 33-ball 24 was exactly the kind of boost India needed to get them over the 150-run mark. Had Thakur stayed unbeaten, Rahul probably would have not pressed on the accelerator so quickly.

But once Thakur was dismissed, Rahul had no choice. As long as runs were scored it really didn’t matter whose bat it came off. It was imperative however India beat their odds at Centurion by stitching multiple big partnerships and converting at least one good start. As things stood after Day 1, only one fifty-plus stand had been forged, one individual fifty had been scored and India averaged 26 runs per wicket. With Rahul still unbeaten though, India can only hope to improve their first innings returns.

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