Virat Kohli gave ample display of his class by cracking a fluent 119 as a gritty India produced a decent batting show on the opening day to leave the first cricket Test against South Africa evenly poised here today.
The 25-year-old Kohli, batting at the coveted number 4 position left vacant by retired batting icon Sachin Tendulkar, notched up his fifth Test century to steer the visitors to a comfortable 255 for five at close on a bouncy Wanderers track.
Ajinkya Rahane (43 batting) and skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni (17 batting) were at the crease on an eventful opening day which saw the beleaguered Indian batting line-up giving a good account of themselves despite their only warm-up game being abandoned due to a wet outfield.
Kohli stole the thunder on the first day as he displayed wonderful counter-attacking ability with dazzling array of strokes all round the wicket after openers Shikhar Dhawan (13) and Murali Vijay (6) were dismissed cheaply by Dale Steyn (1/56) and Morne Morkel (1/27) within 15.1 overs.
Kohli, India's premier batsman, hit 18 sweetly timed boundaries in his 181-ball knock with the standout shot being a pull off the fast and furious Steyn. He played some flowing drives, played the square cut well and was severe on leg-spinner Imran Tahir, who was repeatedly pulled towards the deep mid-wicket boundary.
Kohli's shot selection was admirable as he was ready to leave a lot of deliveries but didn't forget to punish the loose balls. Kohli reached his fifth Test hundred when he played off-break bowler Jean-Paul Duminy's delivery towards mid-wicket for a couple before celebrating the milestone with a leap and punch of his fists in the air.
As he took charge of taking on the Proteas attack, he was well complemented by Cheteshwar Pujara (25) during their 89-run third wicket stand before he was unfortunately run-out due to a horrible mix-up.
Rahane, playing only his second Test, also showed good temperament during their fifth-wicket stand of 68 runs as the young Mumbai batsman grew in confidence with passage of time.
Kohli was finally out giving a catch to Duminy at covers off Kallis' bowling. Each bowler of the South African pace quartet got a wicket each.
Rahane hit seven fours in his 105-ball knock with the best shot being a cover drive off Steyn when the latter was bowling with second new ball.
Apart from Steyn and Morkel, Vernon Philander (1/45) and Jacques Kallis (1/37) got a wicket apiece with Imran Tahir (0/47 in 8 overs) and Duminy (0/30 in 5 overs) were disappointing. The spin duo gave away 77 runs in 13 overs between them.
Kohli was given ample support in the final session of the day by Rahane, who didn't want to waste this chance. Kohli's 100 came off 140 balls with 16 hots to the fence.
In good batting conditions, the two were watchful in the first hour after tea, not wanting to lose anymore wickets. There were a couple of played and missed chances, particularly against Morkel, who bowled his heart out with only a solitary wicket to show.
After reaching his century, Kohli slowed down trying to play for time. Rahane though kept up the tempo and together they brought up their 50-run partnership in the 71st over.
It might have the final drinks break of the day that caused a break in Kohli's concentration as he was out caught by Duminy, playing a loose drive off Kallis. He looked tired after a mammoth effort off 181 balls, walking off to cheers from the sparse crowd and indeed from the Indian dressing room.
Earlier, India had started post-lunch on 70 for 2 with Kohli rebuilding the innings with Pujara. They brought up their 50-run partnership in the 30th over, looking comfortable whilst leaving the ball and attacking with great caution. Kohli scored at a quick clip, attacking Tahir out of all bowlers. It seemed like a specific plan of targeting him, as he negated Smith's bowling options as South Africa fell behind the over-rate.
In Tahir's second over of the day, 39th of the innings, Kohli completed his half-century. He reached the mark off 76 balls with nine boundaries in all. Together with Pujara, Kohli helped India cross the 100-run mark in the 40th but few minutes after that he was responsible in calling the former for a non-existent run which lead to his unfortunate run-out.
At 113/3, Rohit Sharma joined Kohli, bringing up the 150 in the 43rd over. They quickly put on 38 runs for the fourth wicket, before the latter fell two overs before tea.
Rohit was out trying to drive Philander without much feet movement.
Rahane was in next, and he took India to tea at 164/4 with Kohli unbeaten on 84.
In the morning session, skipper Dhoni opted to bat first, on what looked like a good track to take strike, once the new ball was taken care of. Vijay and Dhawan spend an uncomfortable first hour in the middle before making their way back.
The action began in the ninth over, as Steyn dished out some short stuff to Dhawan. The third ball of the over looped from Dhawan's bat as he played a half-hearted pull and it went for four runs. The fourth ball, also short, went off the handle and fell short of gully. The fifth ball, again short, went down legside and the batsman made an attempt to play at it. And then finally on the last ball of the over, Dhawan was out caught fine leg by Imran Tahir, as he mistimed a pull-shot again.
India's average opening stand since January 2011 has been 15.96 and the poor trend continues.
Morne Morkel was introduced in the 12th over and he was a cause of concern for Vijay. The Tamil Nadu opener edged one to third slip, but playing with soft hands, it didn't carry properly. In his next over, Vijay had no clue about a short delivery as it made contact with the bat and looped to forward short leg, falling just short of Hashim Amla's reach.
It signalled the end of an uncomfortable first hour for India, as they were placed at 24/1.
Pujara negotiated the first over after drinks from Jacques Kallis without trouble, but Vijay's patience finally gave away as he edged a fuller delivery from Morkel trying to play a drive without any footwork.
India's new No 4, Kohli's first scoring shot was a beautiful pull off Kallis followed by a little streaky one off Morkel through third man for four. Pujara, in this interim, was a little more secure. He had fewer moments of doubt against the openers combined.
He brought up India's 50 in the 25th over, with a push to covers, running for a quick single. He hit two boundaries, the first a delightful cut through point while the second one was cut over the slip cordon as skipper Graeme Smith had just taken off third man.
India first innings:
M. Vijay c de Villiers b Morkel 6
S. Dhawan c Imran Tahir b Steyn 13
C. Pujara run out (Imran Tahir/Amla) 25
Virat Kohli c Duminy b Kallis 119
Rohit Sharma c de Villiers b Philander 14
Ajinkya Rahane not out 43
MS Dhoni not out 17
Extras: (LB-3, W-14, NB-1) 18
Total: (for 5 wickets in 90 overs) 255
Fall of wickets:n 1-17, 2-24, 3-113, 4-151, 5-219
Bowling: Steyn 23-5-56-1, Philander 21-2-55-1, Morkel 19-10-27-1, Kallis 14-4-37-1, Tahir 8-0-47-0, Duminy 5-0-30-0.
To bat: R. Ashwin, I. Sharma, Zaheer Khan, Mohammed Shami
South Africa: G. Smith, A. Petersen, H. Amla, J. Kallis, A. de Villiers, J. Duminy, F. du Plessis, V. Philander, D. Steyn, M. Morkel, Imran Tahir.