On an absorbing third day of the first Test here at the VCA Stadium, Dale Steyn cracked open India’s batting as if it were a soft-boiled egg. Steyn claimed two wickets with conventional swing in his first spell and five with reverse swing after tea, as South Africa forced India to follow on.
Steyn then extracted Virender Sehwag, who made 109 in India’s first innings, to strengthen South Africa’s hold on the match.
India ended the day trailing by 259, M. Vijay and Sachin Tendulkar seeing their side to stumps.
Monday’s morning session had many fascinating facets. Steyn and Morne Morkel were confronted with the challenge of haggling with the track and obtaining the best bargains for wickets; if their entreaties failed they had to find a way of making the playing surface irrelevant.
India’s batsmen, on the other hand, needed to find that elusive balance between respecting the situation and playing their natural games.
Morkel removed Gautam Gambhir with an impeccable delivery first up. The 6ft 6in fast-bowler turned Gambhir inside-out, the angle from right-arm around forcing the left-hander to play, the length dissuading Gambhir from committing his balance to either foot, the movement off the surface procuring the edge. The delivery didn’t merely fulfil the immediate objective of dismissing Gambhir; it created doubt — Gambhir’s decision to leave the ball in the second innings was in part influenced by his first-innings dismissal.
Morkel continued to hit the track hard, often in excess of 145 kmph, on occasion gaining troubling lift — quite a remarkable achievement considering the slowness of the pitch. His methods counterpointed those of Steyn.
Where Morkel released the ball with his wrist firmly behind it, allowing the ball’s seam to alter the delivery’s course on pitching, Steyn concentrated on swing. The wrist manipulation and increased backspin the method demands kept Steyn from Morkel’s express pace, but he was still forbiddingly quick. He was also supremely subtle.
Steyn showed M. Vijay the out-swinger before giving him the in-swinger. Vijay, thinking he had the measure of Steyn after the out-swinger, shouldered arms to a delivery that both swung and seamed in from outside off-stump.
Tendulkar was set up with greater subtlety. The great man off-drove an out-swinger magnificently, his footwork and arm-flow accommodating the movement. Steyn bowled him another out-swinger, but from marginally closer to the stumps and of slightly shorter length. The shape of the delivery thus had a wider curve, enough to draw Tendulkar out of a stable position.
Batting with control
Sehwag batted with great control during the first hour. He didn’t spare the loose delivery (the definition of looseness was Sehwag’s own of course), but he kept a check on his ambitions.
After a back-cut for his first boundary of the day, Sehwag waited for the full ball to drive. He resisted the temptations of the upper-cut when the ball was pitched short and on off-stump; when a delivery of similar length was directed at his ribs, he either ducked under it or, if the ball didn’t rise awkwardly, whipped it to on.
Badrinath (56) benefited from Sehwag’s presence. Debuts are nervous occasions at the best of times; one can consider the quality of South Africa’s bowling, the delicacy of India’s position, and the heartbreak Badrinath endured before finally breaking into the Test team, and still not fully comprehend the pressure the 29-year-old was under. He started nervously, but willed his way through his first hour of batting in Test cricket.
Sehwag maintained a strike rate of 75 runs per hundred balls without doing anything outrageous, allowing Badrinath to settle.
Badrinath had to face the last phase of Morkel and Steyn’s opening spells, a task he performed adequately, before having to contend with the relatively easier line-up of Paul Harris’ left-arm spin, Wayne Parnell’s left-arm fast-medium and Jacques Kallis’s holding fast-medium.
Sehwag, after slapping Parnell for two fours off wide deliveries, sliced another wide delivery to sweeper cover. South Africa’s celebrations showed how highly the team priced Sehwag’s wicket. After being dictated to by Indian opener, the possibilities of his batsmanship enough to spread the field, Graeme Smith reclaimed control.
India, from 192 for three, crashed to 233 all out.
M.S. Dhoni’s wicket after tea triggered the slide. He was caught at slip off a Harris delivery that turned and bounced from the rough to follow the batsman like a crazed stalker.
Steyn managed to find reverse swing after the ball was changed, and proceeded to demolish India’s lower-order, hitting the stumps thrice (albeit twice off the inside edge) after having Badrinath caught at short mid-wicket off a slippery in-ducker.
South Africa — 1st innings: 558 for six decl.
India — 1st innings: G. Gambhir c Boucher b Morkel 12 (15b, 2x4), V. Sehwag c Duminy b Parnell 109 (139b, 15x4), M. Vijay b Steyn 4 (13b, 1x4), S. Tendulkar c Boucher b Steyn 7 (16b, 1x4), S. Badrinath c Prince b Steyn 56 (139b, 7x4), M.S. Dhoni c Kallis b Harris 6 (29b, 1x4), W. Saha b Steyn 0 (3b), Harbhajan lbw b Steyn 8 (16b, 16b, 1x4), Zaheer b Steyn 2 (8b), A. Mishra b Steyn 0 (8b), Ishant (not out) 0 (5b), Extras (b-13, lb-7, nb-4, w-5) 29; Total (in 64.4 overs) 233.
Fall of wickets: 1-31 (Gambhir), 2-40 (Vijay), 3-56 (Tendulkar), 4-192 (Sehwag), 5-221 (Dhoni), 6-221 (Badrinath), 7-222 (Saha), 8-226 (Zaheer), 9-228 (Mishra).
South Africa bowling: Steyn 16.4-6-51-7, Morkel 15-4-58-1, Harris 17-2-39-1, Parnell 7-1-31-1, Kallis 6-0-14-0, Duminy 3-0-20-0.
India — 2nd innings: G. Gambhir b Morkel 1 (2b), V. Sehwag c Smith b Steyn 16 (19b, 3x4), M. Vijay (not out) 27 (68b, 4x4), S. Tendulkar (batting) 15 (48b, 2x4), Extras (b-2, w-5) 7; Total (for two wickets in 23 overs) 66.
Fall of wickets: 1-1 (Gambhir), 2-24 (Sehwag).
South Africa bowling: Steyn 4-0-14-1, Morkel 6-2-21-1, Parnell 2-0-12-0, Harris 7-3-12-0, Kallis 4-2-5-0.