Johannesburg: Indian middle order finally came good as combative half-centuries from under-fire Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane helped the visitors set South Africa a challenging 240-run target in the second Test, here on Wednesday.
The Proteas started in earnest with Aiden Markram (24 batting) and Dean Elgar (10 batting) knocking off 34 runs off the chase before the tea break on the third day. Pujara (53 off 86 balls) and Rahane (58 off 78 balls) added lifelines to their respective careers with their timely knocks while Hanuma Vihari (40 not out) also played a crucial part in swelling India’s overall lead as they finished their second innings at 266.
Kagiso Rabada (20-3-77-3) was inspirational in the final half-an-hour before lunch as he brought his team back with quick dismissals. Marco Jansen (17-4-67-3) and Lungi Ngidi (10.1-1-43-3) also played their parts to perfection. The Indian middle-order, which has flattered to deceive on most occasions in the past couple of years, did its job and also got some much needed late-order support from Shardul Thakur (28).
If anything stuck out like a sore thumb, it was Rishabh Pant’s irresponsible shot selection at crucial juncture which invited the wrath from none other than legendary Sunil Gavaskar, who termed the excuse of “natural game” as “nonsense”.
Pujara and Rahane in a rarely seen counter-attacking mode added 111 runs in just 23.2 overs, getting some breathing space for themselves. Having understood that time is indeed running out for them, both the batters decided not to try and hang around as they looked for scoring opportunities. The half volleys were driven imperiously and the width was dispatched disdainfully square off the wicket. When Marco Jansen bowled one short, Rahane uncorked the slash over point for a six.
Pujara’s 50 came off 62 balls while Rahane’s half-century was completed in 67, signalling that they were trying to show ‘intent’ and put team’s interest above everything else. They hit 18 fours and a six between them. There was a time when India were 155 for two with a lead of 128 and it seemed that South Africa’s propensity to bowl too short or too full was proving to be damaging. But then Rabada, South Africa’s best exponent of fast bowling since Dale Steyn, produced a piece of inspiration that is so synonymous with traditional format.
Rabada found that ideal back of length where there is a crack and it landed there to deviate sharply, taking Rahane’s edge into keeper Kyle Verreynne’s gloves. Pujara then got one from Rabada in the off-stump channel to be plumb despite lunging far forward.
However, the man who disappointed one and all was Pant, who first got a snorter from Rabada that hit his helmet viser when he tried to defend awkwardly and then he charged like a raging bull trying to convert a short ball into half volley. The result was an edge to keeper. It was Vihari and Shardul, who were involved in a 41-run stand for the seventh wicket and then had two little but enormously important stands of 17 and 21 respectively with tail-enders Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj to set up a good chase for the Proteas.