Smith and McKenzie forge century partnership; Amla stays on to frustrate Indians
Chennai: The first day of the Chennai Test showcased South African efficiency, as the side managed 304 for the loss of four wickets, after opting to bat first. The South African batsmen are seldom obliged to entertain, and on Wednesday at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium, whatever little entertainment existed was tapered down to the minimum.
Save for the imperious cover-drives, their batting was efficient and purposeful, but buried under layers of defence and unimaginative Indian bowling. The most India managed were four well-spaced wickets that saved the day.
Pitch defies predictions
The Chepauk pitch set about defying predictions, refusing to offer the promised bounce and carry. Batting was ridiculously easy. A lack of sufficient preparation time was seen as a reason.
The wicket last hosted a match on February 27, which gave curator Parthasarathy Kannan just 27 days to ready a Test pitch of some competence.
But it says something of South Africa’s previous experience on Indian tracks that Neil McKenzie, who scored 94, admitted to being “surprised at the amount of bounce in the wicket.” Hashim Amla was the other beneficiary.
McKenzie registered his highest score against India, on a pitch tailor-made for batting. The start he had with captain Graeme Smith was unflattering, as both matched the discomfort of the bowlers upfront. Mediocre deliveries escaped censure, but S. Sreesanth’s rare fits of accuracy promised something better.
Anil Kumble brought himself on, not out of choice, after 10 overs. McKenzie, in a scoreless trance, needed a change of pace. He utilised the width on offer with shots that helped him settle and play a dominant role in the 132-run opening partnership.
Enjoying a new wave of confidence and fortune, McKenzie launched into a more assured method of shot-making. On such a track, there could’ve been little compromise on line. The Indians invited him to drive consistently, and minimised his reliance on attack against spin. Harbhajan Singh was exempted from charity, and smashed over mid-off.
The off-spinner’s spell to McKenzie in his 80s did the batsman in. The drive was a viable option off Harbhajan since the wicket didn’t threaten to subvert. But at 94, he pushed at one that was fuller and edged to Rahul Dravid at slips.
Smith, tall and strong, took a while to look the part. Sreesanth writhed in agony at every missed edge, exaggerating their quality and making up for a lack of control.
Fortune scoffed at him in the 31st over, when Asad Rauf failed to acknowledge his appeal for caught-behind off a Smith inside-edge. The confident shouts around led some to believe that Dhoni had spilled the catch (it dropped off his glove, but only after he had complete control over it). The snickometer confirmed Smith had inside-edged it.
Thereafter, Sreesanth’s bowling carried the burden of wretched fortune. He offered width and was despatched; he bowled too full and was driven, and the odd one he managed to get to straighten, beat the bat. Smith rubbed it in with four guiltless boundaries off his over.
Kumble’s dismissal of Smith, which came after lunch, surfaced from an erosion of clarity. Setting him up with length, pace and flight, Smith was left to search for runs repeatedly. In the 34th over, he was offered one that was flighted and pitched on middle. The shot lacked enough purpose, and V.V.S. Laxman held on to it at short mid-on.
Jacques Kallis spent a laborious time in the middle. He looked solid, but not with the similar unhurried confidence one has come to accept. The single concession to force was his pull off R.P. Singh. The weather, treated with ritualistic concern and resigned humour, had by then surfaced in its entirety.
Harbhajan’s loopy delivery was poorly defended and found Wasim Jaffer at short-leg off bat and pad. Kallis chose to join the band of walkers, ignoring Asad Rauf, and putting an end to his 42-ball misery in the cruel heat.
Kumble, who had pushed his 37-year-old self through endless toil, had it in him to pull off a brilliant one-handed effort to dismiss Ashwell Prince off his own bowling. The ball stopped a tad, before Prince succumbed. Amla saved the final session from drear, with shots of total ease and confidence.
Again, the cover-drive was the choice of self-expression. Kumble bowled shorter following Smith’s dismissal, which was enough to give him time to settle. The forward defence was sound as was the occasional use of the cut.
Amla’s elegance isn’t easily accepted, partly because he hasn’t done it justice till the recent past. At close of play, he was unbeaten on 85, and Thursday holds a lot of promise.
It was a challenge bowling on this wicket, which the bowlers didn’t accept. There was an apparent lack of intensity in the bowling, on a hot and frustrating day.
South Africa — 1st innings: G. Smith c Laxman b Kumble 73, N. McKenzie c Dravid b Harbhajan 94, H. Amla (batting) 85, J. Kallis c Jaffer b Harbhajan 13, A. Prince c & b Kumble 23, AB de Villiers (batting) 10; Extras: (b-1, lb-4, w-1): 6; Total (for four wkts., in 90 overs): 304.
Fall of wickets: 1-132 (Smith), 2-196 (McKenzie), 3-244 (Kallis), 4-291 (Prince).
India bowling: R.P. Singh 14-1-68-0, Sreesanth 15-3-60-0, Kumble 29-8-61-2, Harbhajan 26-2-92-2, Sehwag 6-1-18-0.