Neither Sachin Tendulkar’s 46th century nor the lower-order’s spirited resistance could keep India from an innings defeat in the first Test against South Africa here at the VCA Stadium.

Tendulkar (100) batted with uncommon mastery on a wearing fourth-day surface, a surface so slow it prompted captain South African Graeme Smith to station his catchers in front of the wicket during several phases of play.

The end was imminent after Tendulkar’s departure. But Wriddhiman Saha (36), Harbhajan Singh (39), and Zaheer Khan (33) did their bit to extend the contest. Eventually the discipline of South Africa’s bowling and the magnitude of the touring side’s lead proved too much.

Fittingly Dale Steyn took the last wicket, his 10th of the match, as South Africa completed an innings-and-six-run win for a 1-0 lead in the two-Test series. It was M.S. Dhoni’s first defeat as captain in 12 Tests.

Outplayed, India will have to win the second Test, scheduled in Kolkata from February 14, if it is to retain its No. 1 ranking.

A swift turnaround is required. But there is time yet for such analysis; the immediate need is an account of Tuesday’s events.

Much of day four saw Tendulkar and Steyn locked in battle. The thrust and parry between a fast-bowler at his peak and a great batsman is among the most engaging spectacles in cricket: not only is it visually rewarding, featuring as it does impossibly complex activities compressed in the briefest of moments, but it also satisfies the mysterious desire for razor-edged conflict between equally matched champions.

Steyn won a round by bringing a ball in to Tendulkar, using the angle of his release and a scrambled seam for this purpose rather than the conventional in-swinger.

Tendulkar watched the ball till late, but unable to determine its designs, couldn’t decide between playing it and leaving it; fortunately for the great batsman, the ball brushed the front pad, positioned outside off-stump’s line, and missed the rapidly but belatedly descending bat.

Tendulkar responded with a flicked two. Steyn nearly obtained a return catch with one that the pitch held up before forcing Tendulkar to sway away from a short delivery that bounced wickedly low. Steyn then served up a rare bad ball, both short and wide, and Tendulkar rolled his wrists on the cut, cuffing the ball.

In the next over, Tendulkar masterfully turned to the square-leg fence a delivery on middle stump which had begun to shape away.

Another joust

Roughly half way into the middle session, Tendulkar and Steyn had another joust, the bowler armed this time with reverse swing. Offered width, Tendulkar dabbed the bowler to the third-man boundary to move into the 90s, but was then beaten by a rapid in-ducker. Steyn appealed for a leg-before decision; the ball had swung too much.

In between these contests, Tendulkar dealt adroitly with the other challenges South Africa’s bowlers presented. Paul Harris’s left-arm over, directed into the rough, and Wayne Parnell’s slight away-swing from left-arm around (the ball swinging with the shine) posed problems.

Tendulkar waited for Harris to drop his length, seeking to pull, but he had more success with an on-drive, front foot leading the stroke.

Parnell, who bowled a troubling spell just before lunch, won an edge from Tendulkar on 45. It travelled fast and low to Jacques Kallis’s right at first slip, and was put down.

Tendulkar also endured a few anxious moments on 99 against Parnell, who bowled a wide, denying line to keep the great man from finding a run. But after reaching his hundred Tendulkar fell — in mildly bizarre circumstances and against the run of play,

Tendulkar went on bent knee to sweep Harris, as he had done to a degree of safety earlier, but found to his horror the ball cannoning off pad and arm onto the stumps. With Tendulkar went India’s chances, however remote they may have been, of saving the match.

A measure of Tendulkar’s influence on the day and the ease with which he batted may be had from the first session, in which he made 62 of India’s 96 runs.

Unfortunately for India, none of the other batsmen emulated Tendulkar’s skill and patience. M. Vijay (32) helped Tendulkar raise 72, and after Vijay and S. Badrinath exited — the former top-edged a sweep to fine-leg, the latter thrust his bat at a Parnell delivery that left him to be caught behind — Dhoni joined Tendulkar for a partnership of 70.

But saving a match demands much more; it demands epic partnerships — and with Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman indisposed and Gautam Gambhir having a rare lean match, India was stripped of the services of three men eminently capable of such feats.

South Africa — 1st innings: 558 for six decl.

India — 1st innings: 233

India — 2nd innings: G. Gambhir b Morkel 1 ( 3b), V. Sehwag c Smith b Steyn 16 ( 19b, 3x4), M. Vijay c Morkel b Harris 32 ( 90b, 4x4), S. Tendulkar b Harris 100 ( 179b, 13x4), S. Badrinath c Boucher b Parnell 6 ( 31b, 1x4), M.S. Dhoni c de Villiers b Harris 25 ( 112b, 3x4), W. Saha lbw b Steyn 36 ( 101b, 4x4), Harbhajan lbw b Parnell 39 ( 39b, 6x4, 1x6), Zaheer c Harris b Kallis 33 ( 57b, 4x4, 2x6), A. Mishra b Steyn 0 ( 3b), Ishant (not out) 0 ( 11b); Extras (b-15, lb-8, nb-2, w-6): 31. Total (in 107.1 overs): 319.

Fall of wickets: 1-1 (Gambhir), 2-24 (Sehwag), 3-96 (Vijay), 4-122 (Badrinath), 5-192 (Tendulkar), 6-209 (Dhoni), 7-259 (Harbhajan), 8-318 (Zaheer), 9-318 (Steyn).

South Africa bowling: Steyn 18.1-1-57-3, Morkel 21-6-65-1, Parnell 13-2-58-2, Harris 38-17-76-3, Kallis 12-3-19-1, Duminy 5-0-21-0.

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