In admittedly difficult batting conditions, India showed more pluck than on the opening day of the series, but the accomplished line-up will reflect on what might have been after stuttering to 183 for six at close on the opening day of the second Test.
Every batsman got off to a start once Mahendra Singh Dhoni lost his 12th toss of the year – in 13 attempts – but no one kicked on as South Africa tightened the screws almost entirely on the back of Dale Steyn’s prowess.
The brilliant practitioner of swing bowling at great pace carried the South African attack almost entirely on his own, Morne Morkel in particular extremely disappointing despite having excellent support from both the pitch and the atmosphere.
Steyn’s incisiveness, coupled with some loose strokes and one extraordinary catch to dismiss the batsman of the day, VVS Laxman, stymied India’s progress every time they promised to move into a position of some strength, justifying Graeme Smith’s decision to bowl first.
Long before play began an hour behind schedule due to overnight and morning showers, Gautam Gambhir had been ruled out with an injury to his left hand, uniting Murali Vijay with Virender Sehwag at the top of the tree. The openers began promisingly in stitching together 43, the highest stand of the day, even if neither was in total control.
There was swing, as is to be expected with a new ball and under overcast skies; there was considerable bounce, courtesy the hard surface, at no little pace, and the generous grass cover encouraged seam movement too. Consequently, the openers, and those that followed them, were all subjected to the play-and-miss routine on a consistent basis; in such conditions, though, there is no such thing as too much good fortune.
India showcased a positivity missing in Centurion, though the eagerness to attack led to the downfall of at least three batsmen. Sehwag was undone by a combination of flat feet and a wonderfully late awayswinger from Steyn, while Sachin Tendulkar and Cheteshwar Pujara, not unimpressive in his first outing in South Africa, both presented the otherwise innocuous Tsotsobe with late Christmas gifts.
Tendulkar reached out to lazily, distantly drive at a delivery going away with the angle from the left-arm medium-pacer to put second slip in business in the first over after lunch, while Pujara’s watchful compilation ended when he top-edged a pull which safely nestled in Mark Boucher’s gloves.
Vijay, dropped twice during a patchy stay of excellent awareness of his off-stump but hesitant foot movement, was a victim of Steyn’s guile, squared up by an outswinger, while Rahul Dravid fell to a very good delivery for the third straight time, undone by late swing from a middle-stump line as Steyn plugged away single-handledly.
Dravid had looked compact for the first half of his essay but went off the boil in the second, remaining stuck on 23 for 22 deliveries even as the best of Laxman was on display in front of 12,000 enthralled spectators at Kingsmead.
Twirling wrists were called into service more than once as the Hyderabadi made an instant impact. Best showcasing the team’s intent to take the fight to the opposition, Laxman played the pull with tremendous assurance, taking the ball on top of its bounce and rolling his wrists over to ensure there was little danger of picking out mid-wicket.
There was one thunderous pull that sent Steyn soaring over square-leg for only the fifth six of Laxman’s Test career, so it was little short of cruel that he should perish to the same stroke off the same bowler.
One short ball too many was crunched off the meat of the bat well in front of mid-wicket; Tsotsobe optimistically thrust his right hand out at mid-on, and was as shocked as his team-mates, and Laxman, as the ball stuck. It really has been that kind of a series for India so far.
Play will begin at 9.30 am (1.00 pm IST) on Monday, with India hoping for their woeful luck on tour to finally start changing.
INDIA (I Innings):
Sehwag c Kallis b Steyn 25
(47m, 32b, 4x4)
Vijay c Boucher b Steyn 19
(59m, 42b, 2x4)
Dravid c Boucher b Steyn 25
(122m, 68b, 3x4)
Tendulkar c Kallis b Tsotsobe 13
(32m, 22b, 3x4)
Laxman c Tsotsobe b Steyn 38
(95m, 73b, 4x4, 1x6)
Pujara c Boucher b Tsotsobe 19
(54m, 45b, 3x4)
Dhoni (batting) 20
(68m, 31b, 2x4)
Harbhajan (batting) 15
(37m, 25b, 2x4)
Extras (B-1, LB-2, W-4, NB-2) 9
Total (for 6 wkts, 56 overs) 183
Fall of wickets: 1-43 (Sehwag), 2-48 (Vijay), 3-79 (Sachin), 4-117 (Dravid), 5-130 (Laxman), 6-156 (Pujara).
Bowling: Steyn 14-3-36-4, Morkel 15-2-60-0 (nb-2), Tsotsobe 11-3-40-2, (w-3), Kallis 8-2-18-0 (w-1), Harris 8-1-26-0.