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April 3, 2008
In a country where the most lucrative and least-skilled form of the game is now being seen as the best thing since loaves came sliced, there was almost delicious irony in a much-vaunted Indian line-up being skittled in exactly 20 overs. A fine 12-over spell from Harbhajan Singh then offered India the chance of redemption, triggering a South African slide from 100 for 1 to 117 for 4, only for Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers to play spoilsports and bat with the concentration and obduracy one usually associates with a Test match.
After Anil Kumble had won the toss on a pitch that had a smattering of grass, Makhaya Ntini and Dale Steyn scythed through the batting order as India slumped to their second-lowest total on home soil, surpassing the 75 in New Delhi in 1987 only because South Africa were generous with the extras. Only Irfan Pathan and Mahendra Singh Dhoni managed double-digit scores, and it took South Africa just 14.4 overs to ease into the lead. By stumps, that advantage had swelled to 147 runs, with Kallis and de Villiers adding an unbroken 106.
The story of the day, though, was the stunning batting collapse before lunch. Had the surrender taken place on a truly spiteful pitch, India's finest could at least have unveiled the excuses. As it was, only Rahul Dravid fell to a peach of a delivery. The rest were either victims of their misjudgment or their inability to get into line against fiery pace bowling on a surface that had a little moisture. The tail could be absolved of blame after being swept away by the whirlwind, but there could be no excuses for a top order that has perhaps grown accustomed to batting on substandard batsman-friendly pitches in home Tests.
The Indian openers had added 213 on a wretched surface at Chepauk last week, but here the partnership lasted less than four overs as Ntini slanted one in at good pace. Jaffer was caught on the crease, and the timid poke was superbly taken by Smith diving to his left at slip.
Sehwag was then guilty of reaching for a ball that was well outside his off stump. The inside edge did the rest, and South Africa were in wonderland. Wonderland soon became dreamland as VVS Laxman shouldered arms to one that darted back to clip the top of the stumps, and Sourav Ganguly was then torn between playing or leaving. All that happened was an inside edge on to middle stump, and as Ganguly trudged off, the scoreboard read 30 for 4.
Morne Morkel came on for Steyn at that stage, with Smith looking to exploit his height, but two square-drives from Dhoni hinted at a mini-revival. The next time the tide turned though, it was decisive, with no way back for India. Steyn returned in place of Ntini, and his second ball was perfection, darting away to clip Dravid's off stump.
Dhoni had already been reprieved once by then, fending one just out of reach of Amla at short leg, but he didn't learn his lesson. A wild flail at Morkel only resulted in an edge through to Mark Boucher, and when Kumble played on two balls later, it was doubtful whether India would even surpass the 66 they had made at Durban in 1996.
A couple of carves through gully from Pathan helped them avoid that ignominy, but there was no stopping the rampant Steyn, who wrapped things up with the perfect three-ball trick - Harbhajan leg before, RP Singh caught fending off a short ball, and Sreesanth bowled with raw pace. The innings had lasted all of 109 minutes, with Steyn returning outstanding figures of 5 for 23.
Smith cut and drove with customary élan, while McKenzie joined in with two boundaries off RP and some gorgeous off-drives off Pathan. The Indian total had been surmounted when Sreesanth returned for a second spell, and Smith was slightly unlucky to be given out odd a delivery that struck him outside leg stump. Harbhajan then induced McKenzie to edge one to slip, while Hashim Amla and Ashwell Prince fell in quick succession after tea, one caught at bat-pad and the other clueless against Harbhajan coming round the wicket. By then, however, he and India were already in damage-limitation mode, and Kallis and de Villiers ensured South Africa suffered no further setbacks.
Kallis, who had earlier smacked Harbhajan for an awesome straight six, decided that circumspection was the right method, though a glorious cover-drive off Sreesanth did reveal his determination to put the bad balls away. de Villiers endured some nervous moments against Harbhajan's offspin and Sreesanth's reverse-swing, but was confident enough to step out and loft Kumble to the sightscreen, as Indian shoulders started to droop.
It took Kallis 117 balls, three less than India faced, to get to his half-century, while de Villiers managed it at a slightly faster clip. Both batsmen finished the day with a flourish of fours, leaving India to pick up the pieces. From a flat pitch to flat out cold - such is the beauty of Test cricket.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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