JOHANNESBURG // It takes a combination of intense heat and immense pressure to turn something as ordinary as a lump of coal into a diamond. Under scrutiny, India’s cricketers, who always insisted they had it in them, showed the opposition that they were not merely up for a fight, they had the skill and determination to come out on top.
At the end of an absorbing day’s cricket, the kind that can be produced only when the conditions keep the bowlers in the game consistently, India bounced back from losing their last five wickets for only 16 runs to rip out the South African top order in an exact replica. South Africa went from 130 for 1 to 146 for 6, and ended the second day of the first Test on 213 for 6, trailing India’s first-innings 280 by 67 runs at New Wanderers Stadium on Thursday.
India had walked off the field relatively happy after an intense first day, and when they resumed on 255 for 5 – it was nothing short of miraculous that play was not delayed after heavy overnight rains – under overcast conditions, things were never going to be easy. South Africa’s quick men, steered by Allan Donald, their bowling coach, did not repeat their mistakes of the first day, and kept the ball up and attacked the stumps.
MS Dhoni was worked over by Morne Morkel, and when a full ball presented itself, Dhoni sought to release the pressure, but managed only a nick to AB de Villiers behind the stumps. Ajinkya Rahane (47) was on the verge of a well-deserved first Test half-century when Vernon Philander produced a delivery that could not be left alone and yet nipped away enough to take the edge. Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami all picked up ducks as the Indian resistance ended in less than hour on the second morning.
After that, what has been India’s traditional weakness in the swing and seam bowling department – the lack of genuine pace in the 145-150kph region – proved to be their biggest ally. Understanding that they were never going to blast out batsmen, India’s seamers kept the ball up to the bat. The atmospheric conditions and the pitch combined perfectly to ensure that no batsman ever felt truly set at the crease.
Zaheer was especially potent against Graeme Smith, who had fallen to the left-armer only six times in the last six Tests when they have played each other, beating the outside edge or striking the pads often enough to keep the umpires interested. On 19, Smith, who had been set up by a series of deliveries that came in to him, obliged with an edge to a ball that straightened, but R Ashwin could not wrap his fingers under the low, wobbling offering at first slip.
Alviro Petersen played a couple of pleasing shots off the back foot, but when Ishant got it right, the opener was nailed in front of the stumps.
The early success lifted Ishant, but Smith dug deep and Hashim Amla, as ever, seemed in a pleasant bubble of his own, whipping, flicking and driving India’s bowlers to distraction. The second-wicket partnership had grown to 93 and yet, somehow, India’s bowlers had not despaired, and kept their focus, when Ishant produced a peach to peg back Amla’s off stump.
That dismissal triggered a sensational passage of play in which Jacques Kallis was sent on his way first ball courtesy a full, brisk delivery from Ishant, and Smith (68) fell dragged across his stumps and trapped in front by Zaheer. Shami then swung into action as JP Duminy hung his bat outside off to edge to slip and De Villiers failed to get his bat to an inducker that crashed into his pads.
South Africa were in deep trouble at 146 for 6, but then they toughened up, showing India just why they had the No 1 ranking. Having a bad day is out of the question, but even a bad session can hurt you when you play a team as well balanced as South Africa. Philander, at No 8, batted cheerfully and fearlessly to score 48 in an unbroken seventh-wicket stand of 67 with Faf du Plessis.
As the shadows lengthened, India dropped their second catch of the day, this one a sitter, when Rohit Sharma grassed a Du Plessis edge off the tireless Shami. It is on such small things that Test matches turn, and India will hope they have something of their 67-run lead intact when they eventually bowl out South Africa.
Anand Vasu is managing editor at Wisden India