Dhoni’s decision to bat vindicated as India makes steady progress

It is never easy stepping into a legend’s shoes. Virat Kohli strode out at the number four slot, a position that Sachin Tendulkar owned with distinction, and by the time the first Test’s opening day was over, the 25-year-old showed that he belonged, at least for now.

Kohli’s fifth Test hundred (119, 181b, 18x4) vindicated India’s decision to bat first at the Wanderers Stadium here on Wednesday.

At one stage, South Africa had reduced the visitors to 24 for two in 15.1 overs but Kohli retrieved the building blocks and at close, India scored had 255 for five with Ajinkya Rahane (43 n.o.) and M.S. Dhoni handling the second new ball with a fair degree of comfort.

Stepping in after Murali Vijay’s dismissal, Kohli handled Morne Morkel well while the latter was in the midst of a good spell.

Vernon Philander, who often pitched a shade wide outside the off-stump, was despatched past point as Kohli remained decisive on either feet.

Caution and aggression

It was an innings that negated the advantages that the South Africans sought to draw from a responsive pitch and also showed to his team that the host attack could be quelled with a mix of respect and timely aggression.

A four off Morkel with hands, bat and feet all moving in precise alignment while the ball sped straight down the ground, was a delight to watch and Kohli had many more nuggets before he weakly succumbed to Jacques Kallis and walked away disappointed.

Prior to that, there were minor scares when he (on 33) nearly tapped a Philander delivery onto his stumps and later there were two wafts (on 73 and 107) against Kallis but the ball harmlessly passed the bat.

If there was a flaw, it centred briefly on his legs that at times were on trigger-mode for that quick single.

Eventually that caused Cheteshwar Pujara’s dismissal. Kohli guided Imran Tahir to short mid-wicket, impulsively set off, realised his folly but by then Pujara was far too down on the road to despair.

Coping with short stuff

An 89-run third-wicket partnership had concluded in an unexpected way but Pujara too showed that he could cope with the short-pitched delivery aimed at eliciting a faulty hook while a short-leg, a backward square-leg and a fine-leg were in place.

Pujara had failed on the hook during the previous tour in 2010-11 but this time he showed better judgement.

Next man Rohit Sharma was happy leaving deliveries but an inexplicable loose drive gifted a wicket to Philander.

Kohli then allied with Rahane, who had replaced Ravindra Jadeja in the playing eleven.

The two added 68 runs for the fifth wicket and all these were crucial additions to India’s batting health.

Earlier, Dhoni’s decision to bat was an emphatic ‘we-are-here-to-compete’ statement, like the one Sourav Ganguly made at Headingley in 2002. Back then, India comprehensively executed its aggressive intent with an innings and 46-run victory over England.

Against Dale Steyn and company, India needed to repeat a slice of Headingley and Vijay drove Steyn’s fifth delivery for four and along with Shikhar Dhawan, braved the probing off-stump line.

The South Africans quickly recalibrated their lengths. Steyn pitched it short, angled it in awkwardly and Dhawan, rushed his pull, managed a four but a miscued top-edge seemed imminent and when it happened, Tahir was waiting at fine-leg.

And once Morkel replaced Philander, Vijay turned tentative and perished.

Kohli undid the damage and when leg-spinner Tahir stepped in before lunch, two fours were essayed and India stepped into the break with a good appetite.

Sense of progress

That sense of progress continued for the rest of the day and the man, who tweeted in November — “Still can’t believe that the person who inspired me to play cricket won’t play the sport anymore” — had constructed a ton that would have made Tendulkar proud.

When Kohli reached his century, the original little master Sunil Gavaskar stood in the press box and clapped. You cannot get a better tribute than that!

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