Dazzling Tendulkar turns the tables on South Africa
The floodlights were turned on for the last hour at Goodyear Park on Saturday, but the glow that suffused the first day of the first Castle Lager/MTN Test came largely from a majestic Sachin Tendulkar century.
Tendulkar has made higher Test match scores, but he can rarely, if ever, have played better than in taking 155 of a South African attack that had threatened to rip through the Indian batting.
Tendulkar's innings, 105 on debut for Virender Sehwag and a fifth wicket stand of 220 lifted India from a precarious 68 for four to a position of no little authority at 372 for seven at stumps.
It was a wonderful recovery by India, who had been asked to bat first by the South African captain Shaun Pollock. For the first hour-and-a-half Pollock's decision seemed to be vindicated as the top fell off the Indian batting.
The tourists had suffered two setbacks even before a ball was bowled. Harbhajan Singh, of whom so much is expected on this tour, was ruled out by a groin infection (technically known as epididimytis). And then, during the Indian warmup, wicketkeeper Sameer Dighe pulled a back muscle and had to be replaced by Deep Dasgupta.
From these unpromising beginnings, the day rapidly got worse for India. Rahul Dravid made just 2 before edging Pollock to Jacques Kallis at second slip, SS Das made 9 before chopping Nantie Hayward onto his off stump and then VVS Laxman, who had made a sprightly 32, was caught down the leg side off Hayward.
India were then 51 for three which soon became 68 for four when Kallis got one to kick up at Sourav Ganguly and the ball lobbed off the splice into the gully where Gary Kirsten dived forward to take a fine catch.
South Africa were clearly in charge with the innings on the verge of collapse. But Tendulkar had other ideas. He carried the attack to the South Africans with such force that India arrived at lunch on 123 for four.
Much the same followed through the afternoon. Tendulkar played one glorious shot after another and the South African attack wilted. Makhaya Ntini's first four overs cost him 36 and at one point the run rate neared five to the over.
There was also some puzzling captaincy. Both Tendkular and Sehwag milked the absence of a third man, accidentally on some occasions, but deliberately on others and any number of runs came through, past or over the slip cordon. Pollock clearly believed there was still something in the pitch for his bowlers, but the South African attack was too often wayward and the home side leaked runs in this area.
Sehwag played his hand perfectly, lending support to his senior partner throughout their stand and then stepping up a gear once Tendulkar had departed.
Ironically, it was Ntini, on the day the weakest of the South African bowlers, who finally got rid of the Little Master with a short one that Tendulkar pulled for Neil McKenzie to take a well-judged catch coming in from the square leg boundary.
It was his 26th Test century and on the way to it he became the second Indian to reach 7000 Test runs.
By then, though, India had reached 288 for five and the initiative had firmly been wrested away from the South Africans. Sehwag dominated a 63-run partnership with Dasgupta for the sixth wicket before Pollock finally squeezed one between bat and pad to bowl him and South Africa's final success came off the last ball of the day when Kallis had Anil Kumble caught behind off a thin edge.
The day, however, belonged to India who did their cause an immense amount of good. If South Africa had taken full advantage of the conditions, the entire Indian tour might have taken a wrong turn up a blind alley.
But Tendulkar had other ideas. At one point, just before lunch, he hit eight fours in 18 balls. "I didn't want to think about what was coming next," he said afterwards. "I thought let's just deal with the present."
Tendulkar also had the Test debutant Sehwag to encourage. "My first line to him when he came in was `I know you're tense. You're never going to be this tense again, so enjoy the moment'."
He acknowledged that there was always something in the pitch for the bowlers - "It wasn't a flat track, that's for sure" - but by the end of it all, "I feel we've done a good job today." It would be hard to disagree with him.