Pete Seeger wrote the script back in the 1950s with his anti-war hit single Turn! Turn! Turn! and India played the cover version with some glee on the first day of the final Test. But even on a square turner the South Africans refused to wave the white flag and fought hard to muster 265 first-innings runs even as they were bowled out. With Anil Kumble missing the Test match, there was, however, no single bowler to run through the batting line-up and wickets were shared all round.
The toss was going to be crucial and when Graeme Smith won it he gave his team an opportunity to use the best batting conditions. But even early on, anything pitched short of a good length was accompanied by a puff of dust. The top was coming off and fast.
Once their worst fears were confirmed the South Africans adapted their batting plan accordingly, making the most of every opportunity to score. Smith in particular was crunching the ball through the leg side with characteristic efficacy. The fifty-run partnership came up without much fuss but Neil McKenzie’s zeal got the better of him as he charged down the pitch to Piyush Chawla and was stumped.
Hashim Amla is the kind of batsman you normally fail to notice because he judiciously accumulates runs. That he chose to alter his gameplan and score off virtually every ball showed just what the South Africans thought of the pitch. His 91-run partnership with Smith formed the backbone of the innings. Smith, who was lucky to survive a close shout for lbw against Yuvraj Singh’s slow left-arm, succumbed to the same man, popping a catch to forward short-leg. Smith’s 69 would end up being the highest score of the innings.
One of the reasons why South Africa have tasted more success in India than other teams is their attitude to unfamiliar conditions. India were made to earn almost every wicket they took. But on this pitch no batsman could feel completely set, even after getting a start.
When Ishant Sharma, making a comeback after a gap of over a month, breached Amla’s defences with an incoming ball that brushed pad before rattling the stumps, the writing was on the wall. Amla made 51 invaluable runs, but no one who followed would come close.
Turbanator revs it up
Harbhajan Singh, who has come in for criticism for bowling flat and quick, was in his element on a pitch very much to his liking. He varied his flight and angle of delivery intelligently and tied the batsmen up. Once the run flow was choked the wickets fell regularly.
Jacques Kallis went back and across to a Harbhajan ball that turned from off but extra bounce caused the ball to evade bat and hit thigh pad before ballooning up back onto the stumps.
AB de Villiers, fresh from his maiden double-century, failed to latch onto a Chawla long-hop and the ball speared off the toe of the bat to midwicket.
Ashwell Prince battled an hour and forty-five minutes for 17 but played back to a well-directed faster delivery from Virender Sehwag and was trapped in front of the stumps. Mark Boucher and Morne Morkel’s association was short-lived as Harbhajan had Morkel caught at slip.
Wrapping it up
Ishant hastened the end of the South African innings, getting the ball to jag back in appreciably and one that kept low sneaked under Boucher’s bat and disturbed the stumps. Soon after, the innings, and the day’s play, came to a close as Paul Harris swung ambitiously at Ishant and had his middle stump uprooted. From a seemingly impregnable 152 for 1, South Africa had been shot out for 265, losing nine wickets for only 113 runs.
Their score appears modest at first glance but on this pitch it could prove to be quite a handful. If Ishant’s success is anything to go by, half an hour of Dale Steyn and his fast-bowling friends might just blow this game wide open. Equally, Sehwag is not the kind who looks too closely at the pitch and mere survival is not an option here. India’s batsmen will have to make the most of whatever time they have out in the middle for an unplayable delivery will never be too far away.