At the stroke of lunch, Morne Morkel, running across at deep square-leg to stop a Cheteshwar Pujara shot, swooped on the ball but twisted his right ankle and fell, clearly in pain. As he was helped off the ground, the crowd felt the agony as repeated replays on the big screen relived that moment.
If it was a moment of agony for the tall fast bowler, it turned out to be prolonged for South Africa. Their most impressive bowler from the first innings, notwithstanding the number of wickets Vernon Philander got, was ruled out for 7-10 days, which makes him doubtful for the second Test as well. After stumps, there were also reports that Dale Steyn could be nursing a wrist problem.
India batsmen, already building on their slender lead, cashed in, first assessing the situation and playing within themselves and then, when the depleted attack got tired, milking them.
The holiday season is on here and most of the South Africa public that has emptied out of Johannesburg, must be happy it did not stay back to see their world No. 1 side being at the receiving end of the India team.
The stadium has drawn few spectators. And with the majestic Pujara and Virat Kohli hitting boundaries at will, it killed the decibel level further. Only the near-misses and close shaves brought some to life.
Ahead of this series, a lot of talk had been about how Steyn would rattle the India batsmen with his line, bounce and swing. If anything, his spell proved a damp squib for the struggling Proteas. Former South Africa seamer Fanie De Villiers looked shocked. “He is not making the batsmen play at all.” The reaction betrayed the annoyance of a former fast bowler, who excelled in maintaining a testing line.
Just after the ODI series, Murali Vijay had said the idea would be to stay conscious of the off-stump and leave as many balls as possible. He was sitting next to Cheteshewar Pujara at the team hotel as the two spoke of the virtues of doing that.
The talk was fine but few thought they would be able to implement it against the SA pacemen. While Vijay grinded out to 39, Pujara’s Dravidesque qualities of patience, determination and technique carried him through a tough phase before he made up for his initial strokeless show with brilliants shots all around the Wanderers, reaching his sixth Test hundred.
Vijay and Pujara, when together, simply didn’t bring their bats outside the off-stump and stitched together 70 runs. It was weary but effective. Virat Kohli continued from where he’d left in the first innings. Pujara and Kohli have already added 191. And all talk of seeing Steyn and Co testing them fizzled out. The first signs of South Africa giving up came when AB de Villiers was asked to bowl and Hashim Amla was told to keep wicket. While the 7,000-odd crowd welcomed it with a roar, it showed Graeme Smith’s desperation for a breakthrough.
Soon after, Imran Tahir — who dropped a return catch when Pujara had just crossed 50 — was bowling a leg-stump line. It was clear Smith was thinking of trying to save this match going into the fourth day rather than winning as was expected before the start of the Test. South Africa will have to create history if they are to win.
India’s lead is already 10 runs more than the highest fourth-innings total chased here. As Ishant Sharma put it in the end, “the cracks on the pitch will only widen”. Just how soon the Proteas fall into the crevice remains to be seen.
And Vijay was grinning: “We have to take 10 wickets”. The tide has well and truly turned.