Second test: SA holds the initial bragging rights

The first nine overs of the Wanderers Test suggested a near repetition of the first hour of the Centurion Test. South Africa had squandered the new ball on Boxing Day, playing too wide and serving too many limit balls to create some kind of pressure with the new Kookaburra. Indian openers KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal added 117, and the game had to escape South Africa.

But in contrast, at the end of the day in Johannesburg, the hosts were happier after ruling India out for 202 to reach 35/1. Without a steadfast half-century of KL Rahul, leading India in the absence of Virat Kohli healing an upper back spasm and a precious cameo from Ravichandran Ashwin, tourists would have struggled to make it past the 150.

With the pitch offering some spice for the leaders, it looks like the game is on for the second day.

On the first day of the New Year’s test, Duanne Olivier shared the new ball with Kagiso Rabada on his highly anticipated return to the cricket test after a three-year career with Kolpak in England. His opening spell lasted four overs.

As he slowly brought it in and out in the mid-120s, one started to wonder if he was still in county cricket mode. After all the fuss around Olivier’s missing Centurion and all the pre-game preparation for the Wanderers, had South Africa sacrificed an all-rounder for it? Wiaan Mulder had played a bit faster in Centurion, and is supposed to offer some runs with the bat too, unlike Olivier.

Olivier, 29, had blown Rahul at a weightlifter who missed the outside edge and slashed his shoulder as he walked towards the keeper, but that was about the only threat he was facing. he had asked, and it came out of nowhere.

On the other end, Kagiso Rabada had been surprisingly short in speed and bite, and India had ticked 32 in nine overs.

Then came Lungi Ngidi, who framed from the first ball and allowed a single point in his first three overs. By tilting the ball around the stump and straightening it, Ngidi posed a constant threat. But it had to be one of those days; he would end up without a wicket in 11 overs.

But Ngidi, and Marco Jansen after him, toughened things up considerably, and the latter quickly broke through. The previous five overs had only brought in four runs, and the first ball after the drink break Agarwal saw one pitch up and decided to drive to end the brief choke. But young left arm Jansen can make him go up even from end to end due to his immense size, and Agarwal cut him off behind.

Something is happening for the new South African pair of balls now, especially Olivier; the pace increased slightly, but more importantly, he started to make him take off a tennis ball like a good length, something that he is known for and brought him a test average of less than 20.

Veterans disappoint

Cheteshwar Pujara had already been forced to push back a couple, out of reach of the short back leg. He wasn’t so lucky when Olivier made him climb again, and lobbed him to point the splice. Pujara has often had trouble abroad for his tendency to half-lean forward and try to ride the extra rebound. He still failed trying this, for just 3.

Pujara had lasted 33 bullets; the second under-pressure veteran, Ajinkya Rahane, had to play the first ball. Olivier found the rebound, but it would have been a simple permission if Rahane had not gone fishing to line up.

The pitch seemed to be playing faster now as it was baking in the sun. After brief resistance in his first test in a year, Hanuma Vihari got a snorter from Rabada for Rassie van der Dussen to take a short-legged hang-glider.

All the while, Rahul had settled into his own cocoon. It’s like he’s sunk into that protective shell and wouldn’t be drawn out of it no matter what is thrown at him. He calmly holds the bat behind the pad to let deliveries pass on the fourth or fifth stump. The bat does not move away from the body despite the seductions galore, and the balance does not betray it either.

Almost an identical ball from Jansen to the one that brought Agarwal to the drive, Rahul played without fuss a little later. He was able to do it because he hadn’t engaged and watched the ball closely until the very last moment.

Even though Agarwal took the lead at the start with a few fours, Rahul was 1 in 28. He then got a full delivery on Olivier’s pads. You would expect a particular subcontinent hitter to be delighted with the offer and whip it squarely or across the midwicket for the exit shot. But Rahul disciplined himself in that he took into account the little late swing and toned it down with a dead right bat halfway through for four.

This discipline, however, was to abandon it soon after reaching its half-century. With two men in the depths for the hook, Rahul still played Jansen’s shot and came across a great slippery catch from Rabada.

An enterprising 46 of 50 from Ashwin stretched innings 116/5 to 202, but it was well below Wanderers’ first inning average score of 317. In just his second test, Jansen, 21, finished with numbers 17-5-31-4.

Dean Elgar and Keegan Petersen survived an 18-play-off on alternate vice-captain Jasprit Bumrah & Co even as Aiden Markram fell to Mohammed Shami for the third time in three innings. India will be worried that Mohammed Siraj left the field without finishing his fourth place. Unlike Centurion, they don’t have the track cushion to play with Wanderers.