It was a day of redemption acts. Ishant Sharma proved that he could indeed conjure good spells in two successive matches; Zaheer Khan underlined the return to his probing best, and India shed the tag of no-hopers in emphatic fashion.
After a grim morning session on Thursday – day two of the first Test – in which India, resuming from overnight 255 for five, lost their last five wickets for 25 runs to end up at a below-par 280, the Indian pacers seemed to draw energy from Virat Kohli’s fighting hundred. They produced a gladiatorial show to restrict South Africa to 213 for six, and they are still 67 runs behind India.
But the visitors had to wait patiently through a gritty 93-run stand between Graeme Smith, who made a valiant 68, and Hashim Amla for the second wicket that stretched through nearly two sessions.
It, perhaps, was apt that Ishant started India’s turnaround. The Delhi pacer, much-maligned for his inconsistency, had showed some spark while notching up a four-wicket haul in the third one-dayer at Centurion last week, and at the Wanderers he lifted his game to a different level.
Of course, he had the assistance of fortune in the dismissal of Amla, who shouldered arms to a delivery that didn’t bounce as much as the batsman expected. Timber rattled and it was India’s first wicket since Ishant trapped Alviro Petersen plumb in front in the early stages of the post-lunch session.
But the next wicket was purely a result of Ishant’s skill. For a change, Ishant, who adopted a fuller length for a good part of his spells on the day, beat Jacques Kallis’ down coming bat and umpire Rod Tucker didn’t have to think long to raise his finger. Two wickets in as many balls for Ishant, and he let out a mother of all roars! It symbolized not only the grabbing of two important wickets, but also putting to rest the talks about his ability to strike in big matches, at least temporarily. His third spell that brought India back into the match read 5-3-11-2.
Unlike Ishant, there never was a question mark over Zaheer’s consistency. But there indeed was a bit of doubt over how the seasoned left-arm pacer would adjust to the rigours of Test cricket, especially after a hiatus of nearly a year. Zaheer had last played a Test in December, 2012 against England at Kolkata.
He had since then worked hard on regaining his fitness, and bowled 160 overs ranging from India ‘A’ games against the West Indies ‘A’ and Ranji Trophy matches for Mumbai. But bowling against the world’s number one Test side away from home is a totally different challenge, and he was up to the task.
Even though divided by the lunch break, Zaheer bowled 10 overs on the trot, often giving some awkward moments to his old rival Smith, who was dropped on 19 by R Ashwin at first slip. It was an interesting mini-battle, and for once, the South African captain seemed to have got the measure of Zaheer, indicated by the 27 runs he scored off the 48 balls he faced off India’s pace spearhead.
But Zaheer soon dismissed Smith – 14th time in international cricket – to reduce the home side to 130 for four, and at that juncture they had lost three wickets while adding no runs inside nine deliveries. Ishant was the most successful Indian bowler of the day, but it was as much a result of the pressure Zaheer exerted from the other end.
Mohammad Shami too soon joined the party, making the matters even worse for the South Africans. Shami caught a shuffling AB de Villiers plumb in front of the wicket, and then elicited an edge from Jean-Paul Duminy that M Vijay caught at slip with ease. At 145 for six, South Africans were in grave danger of getting bundled out for a paltry score and conceding a sizeable lead.
However, Faf Du Plesis, who was dropped on 17 by Rohit Sharma off Shami, and Vernon Philander added 67 runs for the unbroken seventh wicket stand to arrest the slide and reduce the lead.
The day belonged to the Indians, but now they need to build on it.