January 2018
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Steely Virat Kohli leads India's fightback on sloppy day
NEW DELHI: At the stroke of tea on day two of the second Test at Centurion, with India 80/2, Virat Kohli had chirped to Murali Vijay from the nonstriker's end in Hindi that if they kept playing this way until stumps, South Africa would start to really worry (okay, it wasn't exactly how he described their predicament would be, but there's social media for you to find out more about that).

Unfortunately for India, when stumps were taken they were 183/5, trailing South Africa by 152 runs, and the home team did not appear particularly worried.

On a dramatic day book-ended by three drops and three wickets that promise to prove pivotal as this Test match progresses, Kohli - battling neck pain - took the fight back to South Africa with a confidence-coated 85 not out that has given India a sliver of hope, but he will rue a lack of support. Vijay's frustrated dismissal at a time when batting conditions had eased out ended a stand of 79 for the third wicket and was followed by the exits of Rohit Sharma and Parthiv Patel. India will need Kohli and Hardik Pandya to stage a partnership of epic proportions.

Kohli and Vijay had been joined at the crease during the second session, following the loss of two wickets in two balls. A poor shot from KL Rahul undid a watchful opening stand of 28 in the tenth over, when a leaden-footed drive bobbed back to Morne Morkel who took the offer. Cheteshwar Pujara worked the next ball towards mid-on and harried off for a single, only to be run out by the debutant Lungi Ngidi. On a surface not offering much assistance to seam or spin, those two wickets were criminal.

Kohli's positive approach - big strides forward, confident leaves and some purring drives - pushed Kagiso Rabada out of the attack and allowed Vijay to continue his solid resistance. Three of Kohli's five boundaries before tea came off Rabada, and each was pretty: a front-foot drive into the covers, a flick wide of square leg and a steer past gully. The other two came off consecutive deliveries from Morkel, one placed between mid-on and the stumps and the over past extra-cover.

Vijay was circumspect and left safely, as he had done for long periods successfully in England, Australia and South Africa earlier. He appeared assured against the fast men from the moment he took guard, and drove well into the offside and caressed through midwicket when they over-pitched.

But while Kohli appeared to have sussed out the Centurion surface - he reached his half-century in 68 balls - Vijay appeared itchy after tea. During a period in which he consciously looked to make room and push the left-arm spin of Keshav Maharaj off his lines, Vijay erred in judgement of the length and offered a thick edge to Quinton de Kock on 46. It was another brain fade from a solid Indian batsman on a day underlined by lapses in concentration.

Rohit, who has had a difficult time in away Tests, began with a freebie from Maharaj that he steered wide of point for four, but after managing just four more off his next 20 balls faced, he was lbw to Rabada for 10 when beaten by sharp inwards movement. It was another classic example of Rohit's front-and-across shuffle, and also wasted a review. Having managed 11 and 10 in Cape Town, Rohit appears like to be the first dropped when India's next XI is finalised.

That South Africa did not climb into India thereon was almost entirely down to Kohli. He had moments of worry, such as when he shuffled across to Rabada and missed the ball entirely, and again when he repeated the shot against Ngidi and was saved by the faintest of inside-edges. That spell from Rabada was inspirational, for it came at the end of the day in testing conditions and on a largely unresponsive surface. His working over of Rohit - away, away, away and the in-cutter - proved brilliant and he so nearly had Kohli.

Parthiv, who earlier in the day had spilled two catches, was worked over by Ngidi's pace and angles and got to 19 before poking a regulation catch to de Kock. It was a deserved maiden wicket, coming after during a bustling spell from the 21-year-old.

India needed an innings - or three - of steel after allowing South Africa to progress from 269/6 to 335, with Faf du Plessis adding 42 for the eighth wicket and reaching a vital half-century. They began the day well with Mohammed Shami dislodging Maharaj for his 100th Test wicket - in his 29th Test - but for the second day running, India were guilty of being sloppy in the field. R (Centurion, Jan 14, 2018):Ashwin had three chances put down off his bowling during a fine morning spell, with Kohli, Parthiv and a combination of Shami and Pandya the offenders.

Ashwin first looked on in frustration as catches went down off successive deliveries, both time giving Rabada chances. First, a thick outside edge flew to the right of Kohli at slip, but he did not grasp it. Next ball, Rabada charged out and got a booming edge that ballooned up towards point, where Pandya and Shami failed to call for the catch, and the result was a glaring gaffe. Pandya was the one who got the ball, but as Shami ran across him, out it slipped. Ashwin could do nothing but bring a hand to his forehead.

Through the drama, du Plessis continued to find the gaps. Shami was cracked between cover and point with authority, Pandya squeezed off an outer edge backward of point. Both times, the result was four. On 54, du Plessis got a tickle on a straighter one from Ashwin, but the chance was put down by Parthiv. A double-strike by Ishant Sharma saw Rabada well held by a diving Pandya at deep midwicket and du Plessis bowled for 63, after which Ashwin claimed his fourth when Morkel miscued a slog.

The Centurion pitch has eased out and batting has become easier, but India have a mountain to climb on Monday.

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