In the lead-up to the Boxing Day bonanza, Rahul had stressed the importance of calibrating one's technique to meet the demands of South African pitches, which are tumultuous by nature and feature variable bounce as a prominent characteristic. He spoke about how playing close to the body and judgement outside off-stump is integral to scoring runs in this part of the world. And it wasn't just a case of a vice-captain throwing cliches in a presser, because Rahul walked the talk in the nine hours he spent at the crease on an eventful opening day in Centurion.
He wasn't among the runs when India toured the rainbow nation in 2018, with the insipid tally of 30 runs from 4 innings resulting in Rahul missing 16 Tests between September 2019 to August 2021, the most by any Indian batter during this period. However, his renaissance as a Test opener in England, where he flourished under testing conditions to aggregate 315 runs from four Tests including a hardnosed 129 at Lord's, meant the template for overseas success was drilled into his brain. Bide your time in against the new ball, and capitalize when the opposition attack grows weary. You knew Rahul was sticking to the plan when he took 20 balls to get off the mark after Virat Kohli boldly opted to bat first despite the fact that it had rained on match eve and the pitch had a healthy coverage of grass to keep the divots from opening up.
Lungi Ngidi and Kagiso Rabada spraying the new ball around did ease matters for the Indian openers – South Africa bowled 52% short and 41% good-length deliveries in the first eight overs – but there was a clear objective to not go searching for runs early on. Rabada course-corrected his length in his fifth over, but by then Rahul was sighting the ball well enough to unfurl a punchy drive down the ground. South Africa rued the services of Anrich Nortje as first-change Marco Jansen, who was handed a debut ahead of the in-form Duanne Olivier to add more variety to the attack, proved a bag of nerves. Mayank Agarwal helped himself to three boundaries in the left-armer's first over, and reiterated the unwritten rule that drifting on the pads to batters hailing from the subcontinent is a cardinal sin.
Mulder's introduction brought no respite to the hosts either. Guilty of pitching it short as he trundled away in the mid 130s, South Africa's seaming all-rounder was carved to the point fence with Rahul rolling his wrists over to ensure the ball stays along the vast spread of lush green, which wasn't typically quick due to the thunderstorm-induced showers. With the Karnataka duo looking at home in alien territory, it was vital that South Africa latched onto the chances that came their way. But Quinton de Kock spilled a fat edge diving to his right, and Agarwal went on with his proactive business despite being completely squared up on 36 by Jansen. Never a good feeling to be denied your maiden wicket on debut.
This was the seventh instance in 2021 of Indian openers surviving 20+ overs in a Test outside Asia. In the ten previous years (2011-20), it hadn't happened even once. Agarwal and Rahul had put in the hard yards to stitch an unbeaten 83, and it was time to cash in on the other side of Lunch. But the pace merchants returned with a spring in their step and an amended strategy to boot. Rabada made the openers play a lot more and Jansen followed it up with an equally penetrative spell from the Hennops River end. The dot balls strung together – South Africa conceded only 23 runs in the 10 overs post Lunch – resulted in an edge that fell short of second slip while one spat off a length to graze the shoulder of Rahul's bat and ballooned over the cordon.
The persistence paid off as Agarwal was pinged in front with a nip-backer by Ngidi, having contributed 60 to what was only the third 100+ opening partnership for India in 21 Tests in South Africa. Pujara copped the second golden duck of his career and the inflictor was none other than Ngidi, who'd consigned the Indian stalwart to his first as well when he overestimated his athletic prowess back in 2018 in Centurion.
The inward lateral movement had been the defining factor in each of the two dismissals, but Dean Elgar brought on Keshav Maharaj to partner an effective Mulder. Giving spin a go from one end when the ball is evidently misbehaving off the deck was a tactic as useful as a chocolate fireguard. Meanwhile, making the smooth transition from a state of hyper-vigilance to that of watchful aggression, Rahul had notched up his 13th Test fifty and ushered India to 157/2 at Tea. Although he had luck on his side when a top-edge fell short of Jansen at long leg, Rahul had waded through the difficult patch using soft hands and the precise knowledge of the whereabouts of his off-stump.
The variable bounce at the start of the evening session had Rahul in a fix on a number of occasions. He even looked scratchy at times, not least when Rabada ruffled him with a couple of well-directed bouncers. The riposte, however, came in the form of a scorching cover drive that tells the bowler in clear terms you can't push me into a corner. Having exercised restraint all this while, Rahul finally broke the shackles by lifting Maharaj over long-on. Not a bad way to enter nineties, albeit the fun was spoiled when Rahul lost his skipper to the most obnoxious of wafts.
The wicket against the run of play gave Ajinkya Rahane the best seat in the house as Rahul achieved the accolade of having scored Test hundreds in every country he's played in. He is now only behind the legendary Sunil Gavaskar (15) in the list of Test centuries by an Indian opener outside Asia, and also the second Indian opener to compile a Test ton in South Africa after Wasim Jaffer's 116 in Cape Town in 2006/07. Rahul joined Saeed Anwar and Chris Gayle in the elusive and illustrious club of visiting openers with Test hundreds in Australia, England and South Africa.
Rahane, though, snatched the spotlight with a catalogue of pristinely-timed shots, especially the horizontal-bat cover drive he brandished off the very first delivery from the second new ball. He chased the width offered by Jansen and treated the teaser of a ball with utmost disdain. It was a gem that would've drawn the signature 'tracer bullet' analogy from Ravi Shastri had he been in the commentary box at SuperSport Park.
It was only fitting that Rahul saw India through to Stumps by blunting an entire over from Maharaj, capping off a day of tremendous application with some more for good measure.