Recent Match Report – South Africa vs India 1st Test 2023/24

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India 208 for 8 (Rahul 70*, Kohli 38, Rabada 5-44) vs South Africa

South Africa were poor. India were unlucky. Kagiso Rabada was sublime. KL Rahul was bullish. Thirty-one boundaries were hit. Eight wickets were taken. The stadium was full(ish). The vibe was great. This was Boxing Day with a point to prove.

After 59 action-packed overs in Centurion, the game feels evenly poised if not entirely easy to appraise. The headline, of course, is that South Africa have India at 208 for 8 and won’t feel too dissatisfied with their work before rain took everybody off the field. Well, almost everybody. A bunch of teenagers invaded the pitch and took turns diving onto the covers.

SuperSport Park dished out must-see content. But it wasn’t all good. At the start of play, you had a better chance of seeing the ball skulk down leg than stay on target. The hosts were wasting a fresh, green pitch that was offering substantial help along both the X and the Y axes. After lunch, however, Rabada found his rhythm, claimed his 14th Test match five-for and everything changed.

That six over spell which began with Shreyas Iyer’s wicket and peaked with Virat Kohli’s met its match in Rahul and his pristine strokeplay. It is clear that at some point in the last few weeks he has raided Ricky Ponting’s locker because he was pulling and hooking like a god. The sixes he hit, both square on the off side, were show-stoppers too.

India were put in to bat and they suffered early, forced into 17 false shots in the first 11.1 overs, which is to be expected in seamer-friendly conditions, but, it was enough to yield three big wickets. Rohit Sharma, caught by the only man on the boundary. Shubman Gill, strangled down the leg side. And Yashasvi Jaiswal, nicked off driving on the up.

The remaining 14.5 overs to lunch were just as hard, but this time, India didn’t lose any wickets. Their 21 false shots actually secured 16 runs at 4.5 an over, not to mention a couple of lives, with both Iyer and Kohli dropped on 4. That’s a sign of how much luck plays a part in this game. India paid for every mistake early on. Then they caught a couple of big breaks and a score that should have been 38 for 5 in the 14th over was 91 for 3 in the 26th.

Then Rabada happened.

South Africa looked like they’d forgotten how to bowl a full length in a Test match. They tried it 31 times in the morning and gave up 49 runs at 9.4 an over, including nine of 13 boundaries. They were searching for the secret everywhere. It looked like they might never find it. Except all of a sudden they did and the result was remarkable. Like walking into a broom closet and finding the meaning of life.

Where the rest of his team-mates ended up on the pads almost every time they tried to pitch it up, Rabada aimed for the top of off stump. His discipline was so good it ended a 68-run partnership with Iyer’s wicket immediately after lunch, and messed with Kohli the way nobody else was able to.

Kohli left 25 of the 64 balls he was out there. In other words, he wasn’t interested in putting himself in harm’s way. Here he had to. Rabada angled a full-length ball into off stump. Kohli came forward to meet it. It pitched and seamed away, just enough to beat the middle of the bat but not enough to beat the edge.

Rahul was 5 off 9 at this point and India were 107 for 5. All they had left were a couple of bowling allrounders and then the tail. To revive the innings from there, while staying in control of almost 80% of his shots, is a special effort; a sign even of his problem-solving skills. You know, like Steven Smith.

India seem to be in safe hands when Rahul is out there figuring out the best way forward. There was the 97 against Australia in ODI World Cup, the 39 in a low-scoring thriller at 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 strokeplay. Just ask Shardul Thakur. He got hit on the head and in the arm and he was only out there for an hour.

Rahul made a hundred the last time he was in Centurion and those were tough conditions too. But at least then he was in a familiar position, opening the batting with plenty of support around him. Here it was him or bust. And he didn’t let it go bust.

Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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