|Cheteshwar Pujara after his century, on the third day of the first Test, against South Africa, at the Wanderers, on Friday. (AP)
Calcutta: Considering the disastrous one-day series that the Indians had, there weren’t many who were willing to bet on Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s side for the Test series against South Africa.
Not only that, this Indian team is a side in transformation, a side which doesn’t have a Sachin Tendulkar or a Rahul Dravid or a VVS Laxman, unlike the last time when they toured the African nation.
Confronting a pace attack comprising Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander is not child’s play and the common prediction was that the Indians will surrender to such pressure.
But how wrong such assumptions have been proved by Dhoni’s young brigade! Not only have they answered almost all the questions posed by the Proteas pacers, but also they are now in absolute command of the opening Test, being played in Johannesburg.
At stumps on the third day, India were 284 for two, with a solid overall lead of 320 runs. With eight wickets in hand, it’s almost a given that the visitors will be able to post a monster target for the hosts.
First Zaheer Khan and then Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, India had quite a few heroes on Friday.
Zaheer was instrumental in ensuring that the South Africans were bowled out early in the morning. He took three on Friday — four overall — as Graeme Smith’s side fell for 244. Ishant Sharma, too, finished the innings with four scalps.
India’s second innings was all about Pujara’s assurance and Virat’s fluency. At close of play on Day III, Pujara was batting on 135 off 221 balls while Virat looked set for another century in the match, batting on 77 off 132 balls.
South Africa, of course, have been rendered a bowler short as Morne Morkel has been ruled out of the rest of the match, at least, with an ankle sprain.
At the end of the day’s play, Murali Vijay, who looked quite good during his 94-ball 39, revealed that the Indians were determined to spend more time at the crease.
“It was our plan to spend more and more time at the crease… We just wanted to occupy the crease, get my eye in and then go for my shots,” Vijay said.
Elaborating on his 70-run partnership with Pujara, he said: “In the early part of our innings, Pujara and I batted really well as the ball was moving a bit… And then Morkel got injured and we decided that we have to keep on playing tightly without giving away wickets.”
Stressing on the fact that the pitch is not at all easy for the batsmen, Vijay said that though the rival pacers bowled well, they replied with equally efficient batting. “The pitch also had a few cracks and we knew there would be deviations in the movement of the ball… They also bowled well, especially (Vernon) Philander. But we batted equally well at that particular juncture,” Vijay said.
Lauding Pujara and Kohli’s superb efforts, the opener said: “I am very happy for both Pujara and Kohli for the kind of partnership these two have put up. Virat has completely dominated the bowling. Pujara, on the other hand, has worked really hard to build his innings and reach his century.”
About his own batting, he said: “In the first innings, I played a loose shot to get out. In this innings I was determined to keep things tight and I am happy that I could manage to do that. It was one of the worst ways to get out, but I don’t regret playing that shot. I found that the fielder was a bit square and I wanted to place the ball fine. Unfortunately, it went to the wicket-keeper.”
Vijay, however, is very positive about India’s chances in the Test. “We are in a very good position in this Test and we only need to get 10 more wickets,” he said.
Ishant, meanwhile, proudly declared that India bowled well. “We bowled well in the first innings… In India, only two fast bowlers operate and there aren’t too many overs to bowl because the wickets back home help spinners more.
“If you look at the way we bowled in England or Australia previously, we didn’t bowl badly. There weren’t enough runs on the board. Now we are bowling in partnerships and bowling aggressively. We bowled as a unit and it is because we are all of the same age (save Zaheer) and there is a nice bonding among us. All three of us pacers bowled well. As fast bowlers, we backed each other,” Ishant explained at the post-match media conference.
“But some days will be good for someone and bad for someone else. We will try to hunt as a pack in the second innings and that’s more important than trying to bowl individually,” he added.
Philander, on the other hand, admitted that being a bowler short has made it very difficult for them. “Being a bowler less have made things difficult for us. There was more work for us. It was sad to see Morne go down. Hopefully, he will recover quickly,” Philander said.
Contrary to Vijay’s views, Philander felt that the wicket suited the batsmen on the day. “We will have to come back on Saturday morning and take a couple of early wickets to push them back a little. Hopefully, we will be able to get breakthroughs with the second new ball in the morning conditions. For most part of the day, the wicket played nicely for the batsmen. Also, the Indian batsmen left the ball very well early on,” he said.
Talking about personal milestones, the pacer was happy for completing 100 wickets in Tests. “I am very glad to take 100 wickets. It has been two years of hard work at the Test level. Hopefully, I will be able to continue the good work and will be given a few more run-ins for South Africa,” he said.
As far as his batting goes, Philander, who scored a crucial 59, is happy that he could do his bit. “The ball was moving in the morning and it wasn’t easy to accumulate runs. Even though I wanted to score a few more, I am happy to have helped my team a bit with the bat,” he said.