While the entire world was excited for Christmas, the Indian cricket team was undergoing a sudden replacement of their hitherto successful captain in cricket. King Kohli, that’s what the cricket world calls him, was being replaced by his compatriot great, The Hitman, Rohit Sharma in white-ball format. Not that Sharma hadn’t proved himself but the sudden replacement of Kohli bothered Indian cricket fans as the Boxing Day Test neared.
India’s quest to win in South Africa
South Africa had revived its Test status in 1992 after being collectively banned from world cricket because of the Basil D'oliveira affair. Since then India has played South Africa 39 times in the Test format and has succeeded 14 times and 10 times have drawn the match. The win percentage looks a fair job until you realize that most of the wins have come in their home Tests.
From 1992 to 2018, India has faced South Africa 20 times in their own den and has won only thrice. Their first win came in 2006 under Rahul Dravid, and then Dhoni and Kohli have won one each.
Ian Peebles once said ,"Opening batsmen, a couple of dull dogs, sent in to discourage the opposition, are always regarded as the glamour boys of cricket. They enter the freshly cleared area shoulder to shoulder with eleven opponents going before to make arrangements for their welcome. But opening the innings is not all a bed of roses. It calls for special qualities of technique and judgment rather beyond those of the rest of the batting order, for the first partnership is the keystone on which will largely depend on the pattern of things to come. The opening batsman need never be dull, but he must be sound."
In the absence of Rohit Sharma, who was going to lead the baton with Rahul? Before 2011 Indian openers struggled to play out even the first 20 overs. With the breach of Gabba, Gill was looked forward as a first choice to open with Rahul, but after being ruled out and Mayank’s outstanding display against NZ earned him a spot with Rahul.
Since 2011 Indian openers have averaged around 20.4 overs. Since 2015, Rahul is the only Indian opener to hit a century outside Asia until Rohit Sharma hit a magnificent ton at The Oval.
The KLASS Rahul
Mayank was all set to open with Rahul when Kohli won the toss and elected to bat first. Centurion was the venue. India had lost here by an innings when they last visited. Openers have more to lose on their hands. But this time Proteas didn’t have the Steyn gun to fire. Neither had they Morkel nor their new spearhead Andre Nortje, who was ruled out of the series for injury.
Rahul and Mayank played their domestic cricket together for nearly 10 years. This time Rahu had his best friend at the other end opening with him. And he seemed to complement his friend maturely. Test cricket is all about watching the new ball pass you with the late swing. Gavaskar says, ‘Give some respect to the bowlers for the first hour of the match, for the ball swings lately and there are fair chances you may nick it.' Mayank and Rahul seemed to follow the Gavaskar rule.
Some well-left deliveries, trusting the bounce off the pitch, and a sight for any true cricket fan who loves swing fast bowling. But as the time passed, Mayank seemed to switch the gears and show some more class by playing those sublime cover drives and square cuts. Rahul at the other end complimented his partner by switching singles and doubles.
In the iron determination and tireless concentration of Rahul, he found an ideal foil and the understanding between them seemed to be almost telepathic. Those cunning singles rotating the strike and draining out some energy off the fast bowlers spoke a million words. Mayank soon reached his fifty but departed when he was given out lbw off Ngidi. Pujara was unlucky to nick it off the pads and get caught.
KING JOINS RAHUL
Amidst the same thoughts and waits, we glued to the television expecting Kohli to reach his 71st, perhaps his class had been burdened by the expectations of the fans that Kohli seems to have missed a long innings for the last 23 innings. And right when he seems to be settled his penchant for cover drives makes him go away from the line and nick it behind in the slip cordon.
Kohli is the player who if settled for 80 oddballs can create a magic of long innings. This time he played 94 and yet nicked the 6th stump ball. Seems cover drive has earned him accolades before and is now his only weakness. Rahul neared his hundred. Everything seemed well before Kohli went.
Rahane walked in and heartbeats rose. Rahul was at the other end watching Rahane. With every ball he left camera could read his lips saying ‘watch the ball’. Rahane surprised everyone when he had already hit 7 fours in his hard-earned 35. Rahul had played more than 200 balls and was yet to reach a century. Playing those amount of balls give you another level of confidence.
Rahul had 6 hundred on his name so far in 39 Test matches. 5 out of them had come outside Asia. He was the overseas king of India. His calm under low scores had kept him grounded. He had struggled to keep his place in the team, was always overshadowed under the great names of Rohit Sharma and Dhawan.
CENTURY AT CENTURION
His 97 runs off 200 balls showed his character and resilience. I could see faces around me glued to television with their relaxed eyes and holding their heartbeats for Rahul’s ton. Hitherto the class displayed by Rahul was riding over the expectations of fans. We all were in hindsight of Indian batsmen getting out in the nineties. The fear and commentator’s curse for batsman getting out in the ’90s was all of a sudden seemed reality. One of my friends muted the TV so as to not listen to commentators. Rahul deserved a century. But can he? Will he? How? When? And all the questions were answered. Rahul reached a fantastic century here at Centurion.
Rahul had now become the first Indian opener to hit centuries in 3 of the SENA countries. With his 7th century, he surpassed Sehwag and became only the second Indian opener to hit 5 centuries outside Asia. But as they say 'Well began is half done.'
None matters. India’s quest to win their first Test series in South Africa had kick-started on a very good note. Centurion had witnessed a class of Rahul. Every shot played at hands gave immense pleasure. Tweets and Instagram flooded with praises for Rahul. The job is half done. But as they say ‘half done is well began’.
May we see two more centuries by Rahul here in South Africa. If not centuries then we hope to see India grab their first series win in SA. Till then India’s quest still remains in the hunt.