It’s perfectly okay for someone to have a bad day on the field. What is not okay, however, is a collective brain-freeze, a complete lack of application and a dangerous abdication of responsibility. When everyone fails, as they did on a Motera pitch that had a bit of grass on it, India look weak, and after being shot out for a mere 76, they have ensured that the remainder of the game would be spent playing catch up.
Indian batting is spectacular, you have to give them that, whether it’s Virender Sehwag clattering close to 300 runs in a day, or the whole unit packing up and self-destructing.
The fall from grace began with Wasim Jaffer, who poked at a Makhaya Ntini ball and edged to Graeme Smith in the slips cordon. Then Sehwag shaped to cut Dale Steyn — South Africa’s hero with 5 for 23—and found the ball coming in enough to elude the meat of the bat and crash into the stumps via an inside edge.
VVS Laxman, batting up the order in Sachin Tendulkar’s absence, made a fatal and uncharacteristic error of judgment, shouldering arms to an Ntini ball delivered from wide of the crease that was always going to come in with the angle. The ball moved late and clipped the off bail, leaving India at 30 for 3.
Sourav Ganguly, whose average at this venue is five runs more than what the whole team ended up scoring, was unsure whether to play or leave an Ntini delivery that was slanted away from the bat, and became the second batsman to drag the ball back onto his stumps.
Steyn then produced the ball of the day to remove the one batsman who looked like he might weather the early storm.
Rahul Dravid was forced to come forward and play at a ball that was angled into his pads, but it pitched on middle and straightened, moving away late to shatter the off-stump. It was the kind of ball no batsman would have got to, and arrived on a day when India’s batsmen just did not seem to have it in them to resist.
The most amazing stroke, however, was played by Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who decided that offence was the best form of defence with the score reading 55 for 5. He had an almighty heave at Morne Morkel, swung lustily and rather inappropriately, and only managed an edge to the keeper.
Anil Kumble, disgusted at the start his batsmen had given him after he won the toss and elected to bat despite going into this game one batsman short, got a nip-backer from Morkel that found its way to the stumps.
Steyn, who had bowled with purpose and fire, wrapped up a richly-deserved five-wicket haul by squaring RP Singh up and having him caught at slip, and then pushing Sreesanth right back in his crease with two short-pitched balls before firing a rocket of a full delivery that pegged back the off-stump.
In IPL high season, India had been bowled out one run more than their lowest-ever score at home, in exactly 20 overs. Had it not been for a generous 19 extras, and an unbeaten 21 from Irfan Pathan, India might just have plucked an unwanted record out of the hands of the South Africans, who own four of the five lowest totals recorded in Test history.
When Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie wiped out the first-innings deficit in only 88 balls, all doubts on the nature of the pitch were cleared.
The grass bound it well and the even pace, bounce and carry ensured that the ball came onto the bat. India’s batsmen were guilty of playing the pitch rather than the bowlers and South Africa showed just how good the pitch was to bat on once the new ball was seen off.
Still, India’s bowlers tried to even out the imbalance and the ever-enthusiastic Sreesanth struck, trapping Smith in front.
Unlike their more illustrious counterparts, however, South Africa’s batsmen did not allow wickets to fall in a heap, and it was at the stroke of tea that Harbhajan picked up the first of his three wickets.
McKenzie (42) reacted late and jammed an edge to Dravid at slip, Hashim Amla offered short-leg a simple chance via bat-pad and Ashwell Prince misjudged a perfectly pitched delivery to be trapped in front.
Jacques Kallis (60 no) and AB de Villiers (59 no), the two batsmen to miss out on the run feast in Chennai, came good, pushing South Africa on to a strong 223 for 4, a lead of 147, leaving India with plenty to do in this Test.