If the first day’s play in this series is any indication there could be some serious work ahead for both teams in the coming weeks. On a pitch that was not responsive to any breed of bowler, and yet wasn’t particularly easy to bat on, Neil McKenzie narrowly missed a richly deserved century, Hashim Amla dug in, and only a dogged claw back from the spinners kept South Africa down to 304 for 4. It was one of those days when neither team would be disheartened, and yet neither would feel particularly pleased with the way things had gone.
The old firm
Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie both went to the King Edward School in Johannesburg, though a six-year age gap meant they didn’t play together at the time. Their partnership at the top of the innings, however, only a few Tests old, has already bedded down for the long haul. On a good pitch, after choosing to bat, Smith and McKenzie filled their boots.
Sreesanth mustered up the strength to bowl a good line, and more than once beat the outside edge but anything loose was punished. McKenzie was more than happy to improvise, cutting the ball over point off the back foot and flicking it through midwicket off the front. RP Singh found no swing, and a few too many long hops meant that the scoring rate was always healthy.
Even when Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh came on, there was little change in the script and South Africa went into lunch on a dominant 109 for no loss. When Sreesanth resumed after lunch, and finally induced a mistake from Smith, who inside edged driving at a wide on, there was drama as Mahendra Singh Dhoni caught the ball, but let it slip in his attempt to get up. An agitated Sreesanth had words with Smith, and the reply came off the bat. Smith took advantage of the bowler’s lapse in concentration, putting away a full-toss back down the ground and carving three more boundaries through the off side in the same over. Then Smith (73) had a brain freeze of his own and flicked Kumble straight to VVS Laxman, placed at short midwicket specifically for the catch.
The ‘Neil Mac’ show
McKenzie ignored the loss of Smith, and found an able ally in Amla, who is the antithesis of Smith in many ways. While Smith blusters his runs with a swagger, Amla picks them off as you would fruit from a tree. He nudged, tickled, pushed and coaxed the ball into the gaps, only occasionally giving in to temptation and playing the big shot, an on drive or a whip through midwicket. Before you knew it a partnership had built.
McKenzie, whose 50 included 11 boundaries, looked set for double figures when he fell, against the run of play. McKenzie, who had looked to press forward as much on this placid pitch opened the face of the bat slightly as he defended and edged to slip, only to be well caught by Rahul Dravid for 94.
With the pitch not being the kind where wickets were going to fall in a heap, Kumble restored some manner of control with a tight spell, conceding only 18 runs off an eleven-over spell. Harbhajan took advantage, prising out Kallis who crashed an inside edge to short-leg via pad and walked, having made only 13.
Amla stood firm, forming the backbone of the innings around which other batsmen could play a few shots. But even he would not have expected Prince to play the stroke he did. Driving hard at Kumble, Prince ballooned the ball back down the pitch only to see the 37-year-old throwing himself full length to his left to take the catch. From a healthy 291 for 3, South Africa were in danger of undoing a hard day’s good work.
When the day ended, with no further damage, and Amla unbeaten on 85, South Africa would have been happy, but only just, wondering if they had done enough with the privilege of batting first. While this pitch could still crumble late in the game, it’s very much game on for India at the moment, if they can quickly get into South Africa’s tail.