South Africa's Dale Steyn signs autographs while fielding on the 1st day of the first Test against India at the Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg. (AFP Photo)
Early on, South Africa skipper Graeme Smith edged one to R Ashwin at first slip, only for see him drop it. The chance, albeit a tough one, denied a revived Zaheer Khan the opportunity to add to his collection of Smith dismissals.
It was difficult to guess what the 35-year-old paceman, probably making his final India comeback, was thinking. Whatever it might have been, it was certainly not about breaking down again on a tour opener.
The scene was repeated just before close when Mohammad Shami got a settled Faf du Plessis to nick one to second slip, but Rohit Sharma spilled it. Annoyed, Shami got on with his bowling.
That reaction and many more from Ishant Sharma were symbolic of the determination of an attack, comprising three pacers, which made the most of a wicket that never allowed the batsmen to settle down. There were close shaves, edges flew off the bat, but what exemplified the effort was how many times the Indians beat the bat immediately after the batsmen had middled the ball.
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Onus on batsmen
Skipper MS Dhoni’s biggest worry was his bowling attack, and he mentioned it clearly a day before the Test. But while his batting order, with seven batsmen including him, collapsed meekly despite a Virat Kohli century, his limited bowling attack delivered by using reverse swing as the chief weapon to rock a settled hosts’ boat and keep India in the game. Smith met Zaheer’s deliveries well outside the off-stump and it ensured that whenever he was rapped on the pads, he survived the appeals.
While Zaheer manfully bowled 22 overs, eventually getting Smith, and Shami got two key wickets, Ishant was the wrecker-in-chief, picking up three wickets, including Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis off successive balls.
Ishant bowled a testing length, often leaving the batsmen in two minds and had luck been on his side, he could have had a couple more. South Africa, 118/1 at tea before slumping to 146 for six, ended the day at 213/6, thanks mainly to Vernon Philander and du Plessis.
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Dhoni hasn’t yet captained in even half the Tests that Smith has, but the way he handled and rotated his pacers was the reason why India are still in the game.
While Smith allowed leeway to the India batsmen by allowing his spinners to bowl even before lunch on Day One, Dhoni, despite a more seasoned spinner in his ranks, didn’t introduce Ashwin till late, even when he was struggling to make up the overs.
“I think the bowlers pitched them up to the batsmen and that is what helped us in the end,” said Ajinkya Rahane, whose resistance helped India reach 280, a challenging total on this track.
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