PUNE: The Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium pitch was seen as a sort of mystery. Neither team knew how it would play out. They thought there would be early dampness. What after that, was the thought playing in the minds of the captains. As Day 1 came to close, one got a hang of it. It is a typical flat Indian wicket, where runs are there for the taking. The only difference being the pacers may have a role to play, considering the bounce they extracted.
Eyebrows were raised when Virat Kolhi after choosing to bat revealed they had included Umesh Yadav in place of Hanuma Vihari — the first instance of India playing three pacers after the Kolkata Test against New Zealand in 2016. Despite overnight rain, the match started on time and openers Mayank Agarwal and Rohit Sharma were put to test by Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada. If the former made the ball seam both ways, the latter bowled a nagging length. Both kept beating the edge before Rohit could do nothing to a Rabada delivery that pitched around middle and held its line, forcing him into a shot. The edge was pouched by Quinton de Kock.
The first signs of how true the bounce were seen in the next over by debutant Anrich Nortje. Agarwal copped one on the helmet. Maybe that was the wake-up call he neede. Soon after his double century in the first Test, former Karnataka coach J Arun Kumar had sent him a message saying ‘another one is coming in Pune’. This wasn’t just another attempt to keep his ward going. Since age-group cricket, Agarwal has this habit of following up one ton with another. It happened in the U-19 level and Ranji Trophy and now in Test cricket.
“Did he get one again?” Arun asked from Jaipur. “I’d told him it would come. That has been his strength always. Once he gets a century, he gains this momentum and maintains it. One becomes two and then three. I won’t be one bit surprised if gets another next time,” he said.
With Cheteshwar Puraja, Agarwal saw off the initial period. Once Philander and Rabada were off the attack, Indians found it easy to score. Nortje’s inexperience made him erratic, Keshav Maharaj again fell short of expectations. Agarwal and Pujara targeted him early in his spell and thereon it was always a toil for the left-arm spinner.
“Earlier on, I felt there wasn’t enough spin on this pitch, so we thought it was important to score as many runs as possible against spinners. There was a bit of turn in the second session, so we had to be careful,” said Puraja, who made 58 off 112.
Agarwal grew in confidence as the day progressed. With Faf du Plessis cutting down the scoring angles, singles and twos were hard to get. But once the batsmen found the gaps, there were runs. South Africa tried to push the batsmen to the back foot, but Agarwal and Pujara used the cut and pull to good effect to score boundaries on either side. Nortje resorted to targeting Agarwal with short-pitched balls from around the wicket, but the opener was equal to the task.
Even after the 138-run second-wicket partnership ended, Agarwal hit Maharaj for successive sixes to race through the 90s and took a single to complete his ton. “He’s an experienced player who has scored so many first-class runs. When it comes to being nervous in the 90s, he is fearless. He knows how to convert 50s into big scores. Once past 100, he can score heavily. That habit has come from first-class cricket,” Pujara complimented Agarwal.
Though Rabada came back to remove Agarwal, Kohli ensured there weren’t more setbacks. He wasn’t at his best, but didn’t struggle either. He scrapped at the beginning, before unleashing the cover-drives and punches as India laid the foundation for another big first-innings total.
India: Agarwal c Du Plessis b Rabada 108, Rohit c De Kock b Rabada 14, Pujara c Du Plessis b Rabada 58, Kohli (batting) 63, Rahane (batting) 18. Extras (lb6, nb6) 12. Total (3 wkts, 85.1 ovs) 273. FoW: 1-25, 2-163, 3-198. Bowling: Philander 17-5-37-0, Rabada 18.1-2-48-3, Nortje 13-3-60-0, Maharaj 29-8-89-0, Muthusamy 6-1-22-0, Elgar 2-0-11-0.