If Rahul Dravid, as the coach had a checklist of boxes he wanted India to tick, he would have been a happy man, by and large, at the end of the first day’s play in Centurion. Virat Kohli did the first bit by winning the toss. Even the conditions being overcast at the time, and the pitch having a tinge of green on it, Kohli chose to bat. With that having been done, there was a serious responsibility at hand for the opening batsmen. KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal showed a sense of purpose and understanding of what needed to be done.
It has often been said that this is India’s best chance to finally win a series in South Africa. By the time the first hour of play was done, it became a question of if not now, then when? Rahul took his time to get his eye in while Agarwal played a few more shots. At no stage, however, did it appear that Rahul was stuck. Rather, he was biding his time and simultaneously assessing the conditions. It soon became obvious that South Africa’s bowlers were short of red-ball cricket. Lines and lengths were all over the place and there was little pressure applied in the first session.
The only time India was in danger was when Agarwal poked at one from left-arm seamer Marco Jansen, who generated a bit of extra bounce, not unsurprisingly since he is six foot eight inches tall. The regulation nick was put down by Quinton de Kock, and Agarwal had been given a life on 36. Agarwal pressed on, getting to his half-century, and was dismissed completely against the run of play on 60. Lungi Ngidi managed to evade bat and strike the pad, but umpire Marais Erasmus ruled in the batsman’s favor. To the naked eye and even on replays it appeared that the ball was slipping down the leg and even going over the stumps.
When the review came it took ages for the broadcasters to get to ball tracking. And when they did it was not the usual routine of three things — where the ball pitched, what the point of impact was, and whether it was hitting the stumps. Yet, the projection showed the ball hitting the top of the leg stump and a hugely disappointed Agarwal had to walk off. While feeling for his partner and friend, Rahul had to quickly double down on resolve when Cheteshwar Pujara went for a first-ball duck. Rahul had done the hard yards, and he could not afford to let that go to waste.
Thankfully for the Indian team, there was no shortage of resolve or concentration from Rahul. All-day, Rahul did not play at deliveries that could be left alone. He did not manufacture shots, and the one time he was tempted into helping the ball along towards fine-leg, the fielder was late to react and could not get to the ball. Once again Rahul reminded himself that his wicket was a precious one and that bowlers were going to have to earn it if they wanted it. There was a gentle rhythm to the manner in which Rahul batted, and a high level of fitness as well.
While the morning had begun cool, the sun was out in some force the afternoon, and yet, at no point was Rahul slowing down in his running between the wickets or hesitant to go for a sharp yet safe run when it was there. In bringing up his 7th Test hundred, Rahul ticked another box. He has now scored a hundred in every country where he has got an opportunity. Twice in England, and once each in Australia, Sri Lanka, West Indies, India, and now South Africa, the sign of a batsman who can change his approach and adapt to conditions. Agarwal explained what was working for Rahul.
“As someone who’s watching him closely, what I have observed is that he really understands where his off stump is,” said Agarwal. “He is disciplined with his game plans and mindset,” Agarwal revealed that the plan early on had nothing to do with scoring runs. “To be honest, the plan was to be very disciplined. Only look to play balls on the stumps,” he said. “Centre-wicket practice sessions helped us get a feel of situations, conditions, and what we would encounter in the Test match,” Agarwal added that Dravid had some specific things to tell his players about batting overseas.