Dane Piedt steps up to answer Amla's call
In smokers' terms, the day had reached the stage where the ashtray was full. The tendrils of smog had knitted together to form a full sweater and it hugged the Feroz Shah Kotla snugly. The air was stale, the fielders tired, the second new ball five overs away when Dane Piedt was called on to spin one more spell.
His services were in demand for good reason. On a slow surface with low bounce, he teased and troubled the Indian batsmen with turn, claiming four big wickets. Although fatigue threatened to seep into his approach, Piedt stayed focused for his first spell of 13 overs and a second one comprising 16. He may have been flattened when Hashim Amla asked Piedt for one final effort but he was up for the challenge.
"If Hashim calls you, you can't really say no," Piedt said. Especially considering Imran Tahir's tendency to leak runs. With only two frontline seamers in their side, South Africa needed Piedt to play the dual role of holding his end and plucking wickets. For most part, Piedt did an impressive job, using the uneven bounce, flight, and drift to keep the Indian batsmen on their toes and offer Amla control. Some of Piedt's determination could have come from the memory of when Amla answered Piedt's call.
Last September when Piedt attempted to help Cape Cobras defend 184 in the Champions League T20, he fell awkwardly on the field and landed on his shoulder. He did not think much about it until five balls into his second over when he was assisted off the field by the physio. Amla finished the over and the initial diagnosis ruled Piedt out of action for four to six weeks. It looked bad but not dreadful. Then it became much worse as it was found that Piedt had ripped a bicep off the bone, which would result in a recovery period of over six weeks, if it healed completely at all.
"It was really tough when I walked into the surgeon's office and he told me: 'It either goes your way, or it goes the way that you won't be able to bowl anymore'. That hit me quite hard and I never told anyone about it," Piedt said. "I knew it was going to be a long road for me to come back and it was really tough on me emotionally and physically."
Piedt had missed most of the 2014-15 season and was left waiting to see if things would go his way. He had to watch other "guys coming in and doing quite well." Only one guy actually: Simon Harmer.
South Africa's other offspinner picked up seven wickets on Test debut, just one behind Piedt's eight. Harmer looked equally promising, though in a different way. While Piedt gave excitement with variations, Harmer provided reliability. That they were both picked for the India tour was not a surprise; that they did not get the opportunity to play together was.
Instead, Tahir was picked for every match though Amla could not find a way to use him effectively. Much of that, however, was down to Tahir's lack of control. In his desperation to impress, he probably comes up short. He stuck to a limited-overs plan of inviting the batsmen to attack him but Test cricket has given them enough time to see off the decent balls and punish the poor ones.
Piedt also bowled some loose deliveries as he grew tired but was more anxious for the opportunity than anybody else. "I'm not going to turn down an option to bowl because I love bowling," Piedt said. "I'll take this opportunity to bowl as much as I can because there's wickets up for grabs."
On these surfaces, there are more wickets on offer for Piedt than there might be on the pitches back home. And he has been trying to get them by what he calls "stealing with the eye." Much like R Ashwin, Piedt had stationed a fielder on the boundary in a bid to entice a big shot from the batsmen. It eventually worked when Rohit Sharma holed out to long-on to give Piedt his third four-wicket haul in three Test innings.
These numbers may be enough for him to claim the lone spinner's spot when South Africa return home to face England. Then South Africa will have to choose between Piedt and Harmer. Imran Tahir is also in the mix, which means that Piedt will have to bank on this performance to give him the edge because he has not played much cricket in competitive context after injury.
"When I came back for the Cobras, I played in a game and I think I got three for about 3000. It was tough," Piedt joked. "Now, I've showed my ability to stop the game and take wickets. So I am just enjoying every moment and trying to do as well as I can. It's my time now and I am trying to make use of the surfaces now." And secretly he may hope that as the match goes on, it begins to crumble to the point that it looks like the bottom of an ashtray and offers him more wickets.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent