x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Cheteshwar Pujara’s appetite sets up India

No 3 batsman scores fifteenth first-class score in excess of 150 before South Africa lose two wickets towards the end of Day 4 with another 320 runs needed to win the first Test match. Anand Vasu reports from Johannesburg.

Cheteshwar Pujara fell 16 runs short of Sachin Tendulkar’s record for the highest score by an Indian in South Africa. AFP
Cheteshwar Pujara fell 16 runs short of Sachin Tendulkar’s record for the highest score by an Indian in South Africa. AFP

JOHANNESBURG // When the bowlers are in charge of proceedings, and ball is dominating bat, Test matches race along like runaway trains. The fall of each wicket takes the game inexorably forward, and taking your eye off the ball for a few minutes can cost you.

When batsmen take control, the game lurches forward for a period, then halts, then shifts forward, more like a laden lorry driving uphill, fighting the effects of gravity and a steep slope.

The penultimate day of the first Test between India and South Africa was such a day.

Although 10 wickets fell, eight of these were largely inconsequential Indian second-innings wickets, the overnight lead of 310 swelling to 457 before South Africa began their climb. And how they went, motoring to a 108-run opening stand before Graeme Smith was run out attempting a sharp single, a most unusual way to go when your first aim is to bat time.

A more bizarre dismissal was to follow, however, when Hashim Amla ducked under a short ball from Mohammad Shami that failed to rise and hit the top of off stump. Amla, who had shouldered arms to lose his off stump to Ishant Sharma in the first innings, will consider himself desperately unlucky, but Shami, who bowled beautifully without reward in his first spell, will think he had earned that slice of fortune.

Faf du Plessis joined Alviro Petersen (76 not out) in the middle and took South Africa safely to stumps at 138 for two. On the final day, India will be in the hunt for eight wickets – seven if the injured Morne Morkel does not make it to the crease – and South Africa need to either bat out 90 overs or score the remaining 320 runs.

Cheteshwar Pujara, who has shown that he is not merely hungry for runs, but that he has a big appetite once he beds down, brought up his 15th first-class score of 150 or more. The situation was an ideal one for Pujara, who had already done all of the hard work, and all that was needed was quiet run accumulation.

Pujara came close to toppling the best score by an Indian in South Africa, Sachin Tendulkar’s 169 in Cape Town in 1997, but fell attempting a cut shot to a Jacques Kallis ball that was perhaps not wide enough for the stroke.

When Pujara fell on 153, he and Virat Kohli had matched India’s best partnership for any wicket in South Africa, 222, set in that same Cape Town Test by Tendulkar and Mohammad Azharuddin.

Pujara’s fall meant that all eyes turned to Kohli, who was himself on the cusp of history, attempting to become the first man to score hundreds in each innings of a Test at the Wanderers.

Kohli, supremely untroubled by all the bowlers on display, fully deserved to climb that summit, but, like Pujara, fell completely against the run of play on 96, an attempted late cut being beaten by the extra bounce on a JP Duminy off-break.

Herschelle Gibbs, who made 161 and 98 in Johannesburg against England in 2005, was the last batsman to come this close to twin tons at the venue and miss out.

With both Pujara and Kohli gone, the intensity and quality of batsmanship dipped understandably. MS Dhoni was his usual busy self, and Zaheer Khan entertained with a swishy 29 down the order, but the only real interest left was to see how South Africa approached their second dig. Petersen and Smith stood up to a lively opening spell from Zaheer. The pair were batting perfectly in a partnership.

India only broke the shackles when Smith (44) pushed R Ashwin to mid-on and ran for a nonexistent single. Ajinkya Rahane’s bullet throw nailed middle stump and Smith was caught short. When Amla followed, through a freak dismissal, India had a foot in the door, and now the whole of the final day to force themselves in.