Young Indian batsmen’s journey of self-discovery is bearing surplus fruit in South Africa. The mental hurdles that emerge when the team travels abroad seem to have been dismantled and, thanks to M. Vijay (91 batting) and Cheteshwar Pujara (58 batting), India reached 181 for the loss of just one wicket in the second Test that commenced at the Kingsmead Stadium here on Thursday.
The duo had added 140 runs in the unfinished second-wicket stand, and it was a travesty that when the Indians shone bright, the light turned dull, robbing the first day’s play of 29 overs.
To make up for lost time, the start of play on day 2 has been advanced to 9.30 a.m. (1 p.m. IST).
Much before the skies darkened, Vijay’s tenure, rich in grit and aesthetic lustre, set up India’s first innings. He built on his start and not just coped but also left a stylish imprint on the day’s play, and a maiden overseas century looks within reach.
In conditions that made the ball remain true, South African captain Graeme Smith positioned close-in fielders on the leg-side — a short-leg and a short mid-on — in the hope that either Vijay or Pujara would uppishly flick the fuller delivery, or awkwardly fend the short-pitched one. Except once, when Pujara chipped past a diving Morne Morkel, the batsmen found the gaps.
Bowling full and a touch wide, Steyn offered leeway. Later, he seemed to get obsessed with the bouncer, and that did not help his cause.
Vijay’s cover-drive off Steyn was straight out of the top-drawer. A few overs later, he was at his imperious best repeating the stroke against Vernon Philander, and then punching him over point.
Vijay and Pujara were unhindered, and South Africa’s attempt to stun them with bouncers and the leg-trap only evoked the weave out of danger’s way or the upright block with soft hands.
To make matters worse for South Africa, its left-arm spinner Robin Petersen, drafted in place of Imran Tahir, proved ineffective. His first ball, a full-toss, was gleefully lapped up by Vijay, and as the day progressed, his lack of success saw the host’s frustration grow.
A lunch score of 76 for one grew to 163 for one at tea. The agony extended into the last session before the elements draped a dark shroud over the venue.
In the morning, India had every reason to feel at home, amidst clear skies, a temperature hovering around 25 degrees and the coastal air in a city whose denizens are fond of both burgers and masala dosas. With the Naidoos, Perumals, Govenders and Moodleys watching from the stands, M.S. Dhoni won the toss, elected to bat and sprung a surprise by fielding Ravindra Jadeja in the place of R. Ashwin.
Jacques Kallis, playing his last Test, led the Proteas on to the field, hat held aloft and a raised hand acknowledging the crowd’s applause. Later, he bowled with his usual gusto but with little success against an Indian side determined to create a legacy of its own.
A dry pitch with a few patches of live grass greeted the Indian openers, and with lateral movement being minimal, Shikhar Dhawan and Vijay crafted their shots, the pick being the straight drives.
Immediately, Steyn changed his field, but Dhawan and Vijay merely adjusted their angles and picked cover as their favourite area.
The sequence of solid defence and elegant strokes to the boundary was briefly broken as Morkel — who had recovered well from an ankle sprain — scalped Dhawan who edged to the slip cordon trying to push one to the off-side.
That proved only a minor setback as Vijay and Pujara stuck to the course.
Pujara took four off Morkel with a whiplash flick and, along with Vijay, went on to vindicate India’s decision to take first strike.