India 208 for 8 (Rahul 70*, Kohli 38, Rabada 5-44) vs. South Africa
After 59 action-packed games of Centurion, the game feels evenly balanced, if not exactly easy to evaluate. The headline, of course, is that South Africa have India on 208 for 8 and will not be dissatisfied with their work before the rain sends everyone off the field. Well, almost everyone. A group of teenagers stormed the field and took turns diving onto the covers.
SuperSport Park provided must-see content. But it wasn’t good. At the start of play, you have a better chance of seeing the ball go down your leg rather than staying on target. The hosts were wasting a new green pitch that was providing huge help along the X and Y axis. But after lunch, Rabada found his rhythm and everything changed.
That five-wicket haul that started with the wicket of Shreyas Iyer and culminated with Virat Kohli’s found its match in KL Rahul and his brilliant batting. Apparently at some point in the last few weeks he raided Ricky Ponting’s locker because he was pulling and pinning like a god. The six hits he hit, both over the other side, were show stoppers as well.
India were put into bat and struggled early, as they were forced to make 17 misfires in the first 11.1 overs, which was to be expected in conditions favorable to the seamers, but it was enough to produce three big wickets. Rohit Sharma, was caught by one of only two men at the border. Shubman Gill, lower leg side choke. And Yashasvi Jaiswal, was ousted from the leadership at the top.
The remaining 14.5 overs at lunch were equally tough, but this time, India did not lose any wickets. Their 21 misfires ensured 16 runs at 4.5 overs, not to mention little life, with both Iyer and Kohli down to 4. That’s a sign of how much luck is at play in this game. India paid the price for every mistake early on. Then they got big breaks and what should have been 38 for 5 in the 14th over was 91 for 3 in the 26th over.
Then rabada happened.
South Africa looked like they had forgotten how to bowl a full length ball in a Test match. They tried it 31 times in the morning and gave away 49 runs at an average of 9.4 overs, including nine off 13 boundaries. They were looking for the secret everywhere. It seems they may never find it. However, they did it suddenly and the result was amazing. Like getting into a broom closet and finding the meaning of life.
Where the rest of his teammates ended up on the pads almost every time they tried to bowl, Rabada was targeting the upper torso. His discipline was so good that he ended a 68-run partnership with Iyer’s wicket right after lunch, messing with Kohli the way no one else could.
Kohli left off 25 of the 64 balls that were there. In other words, he wasn’t interested in putting himself in harm’s way. Here he had to do it. Rabada directed a full-length ball outside off stump. Kohli came forward to meet him. It deflected and seamed far enough to go over the middle of the club but not enough to go over the edge.
Rahul was 5 off 9 at this stage and India were 107 for 5. All they had left was a pair of bowlers and then the tail. Reviving the innings from there, while maintaining control over nearly 80% of his shots, is a special effort; A sign even of his problem-solving skills. You know, like Steven Smith.
India seemed to be in good hands when Rahul was there looking for the best way forward. There had been 97 against Australia in the ODI World Cup, 39 in a low-scoring thriller in the Asia Cup, and now this, an unbeaten 70, where he found the boundary roughly once every nine balls, on a pitch that was not at all conducive to a stroke. . Just ask Shardul Thakur. He was beaten on the head and arm and was only there for an hour.
Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo