There was something about the way Kagiso Rabada was running in during the morning session of the third Test between India and South Africa at Ranchi. He wasn’t just ambling in without a plan in mind as we saw previously in the first two Tests. Rather, there was a rhythm to his strides; a rhythm that would have unsettled any batsman.
For one, he was getting the batsmen to play at deliveries. South Africa almost seemed to use him in a holding role in the first two Tests, but on Saturday, it was like he was let loose. The pace had a cutting edge to it, the swing didn’t make things easy. A wicket was imminent and the first to fall was Mayank Agarwal.
It was a good length ball that swung after it pitched and drew Agarwal into the shot. The edge flew to third slip where Dean Elgar took a good catch. India 12/1.
Day 1 report: Rohit Sharma, Ajinkya Rahane lead India’s fightback
Next to go was Cheteshwar Pujara. As always, he remains a candidate for leg-before and bowled decisions due to the huge gap between bat and pad early in the innings. Rabada got one to sneak in and trap the right-hander in front. India 16/2
Virat Kohli walked in to take Pujara’s place in the middle and it took one ball to make him realise that this stay at the wicket was going to be different. Rabada greeted him to the middle with sharp bouncer that sent the Indian skipper ducking for cover.
Kohli knew that he was in for a battle, a scenario he usually relishes, but before he could get going, he was trapped leg before the wicket by Anrich Nortje. India 39/3.
At the other, Rohit Sharma had played and missed, resisted the urge to play the drive and showcased the temperament that distinguishes good openers from ordinary ones. The conditions were a challenge and so was the match situation. In the first 33 balls he faced, he scored seven runs.
Ajinkya Rahane joined Sharma in the middle and together, they took it to lunch. It was a slow grind to 71/3 after 23 overs. It was still a tricky situation – another wicket early in the post-lunch session and there would be immense pressure on the lower order.
Now, India could have chosen to play out the post-lunch session in a calm manner but instead, they chose to attack and the one to lead the way was Rahane. He came out looking to force the pace and the South African bowlers didn’t know what hit them.
In the first seven overs after the break, India put on 42 runs at six an over and Rahane had motored along to 40 off just 42 deliveries after going into lunch at 11 off 20 balls.
This burst from Rahane seemed to settle Sharma down even more and with the initial nerves all but gone, he started playing the big shots as well. While he scored 7 runs off the first 33 balls he faced, in the next 53 balls, he added 45 more runs.
And then it got worse for South Africa. The discipline that had served them so well in the first session abandoned them. As the runs piled on, the bowlers started spraying the ball around and made it difficult for Du Plessis to set fields.
The manner in which India attacked the spinners didn’t help the Proteas either. Dane Piedt, back in the side after being dropped for the second Test, was hammered for 43 runs in his 6 overs and while debutante George Linde had better control, he never looked threatening enough.
The 100-run stand between Sharma, whose contribution at this point was 50 and Rahane, who contributed 49, took just 128 balls. By this point, South Africa had lost control of the game.
There are times when batsmen lose themselves after an aggressive knock or partnership but equally important was the manner in which Rahane and Rohit seemed to calm themselves and play regular cricket again. They didn’t throw away the platform they had built.
Bad light stopped play soon after tea and at the end of the day, it is hard to believe that South Africa dominated the first session. Sharma and Rahane turned the game around in one session, and on a wicket that is expected to help the spinners later in the game, it was just what India needed.
If you fall behind in the first innings in India, you are courting trouble. Sharma (117*) and Rahane (83*) have taken the team to 224/3 at the close of play and ensured that the team will sleep well at the end of Day 1.