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March 26, 2008
Neil McKenzie and Graeme Smith led the way with a 132-run opening partnership, and Hashim Amla built on that with an elegant unbeaten 85 as South Africa seized the initiative on the opening day of this three-Test series. McKenzie, who only made it back into the side at the beginning of 2008 after an absence of more than three years, struck 18 fours in a classy 94, and Smith pummelled 73 on a sleeping beauty of a pitch where India were left to rely on their slow bowlers for respite.
Their four-man attack was seriously stretched in the sweltering heat, with RP Singh, returning from a hamstring problem, especially profligate on a surface where there could be no margin for error. Just over three weeks after they put Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy in the shade in Chittagong - the old record had been established just down the road at the old Corporation Stadium - McKenzie and Smith made full use of winning the toss, piling on 109 in the opening session.
The banners all around a ground that will be home to the IPL's Chennai Super Kings may have had the tagline 'Welcome to the Lion's Den', but it was the visitors that roared first. RP opened the bowling for India and McKenzie's first scoring shot was a sign of things to come. Tucked off the pads, it should have been stopped, but Virender Sehwag's football skills on the rope were as dismal as much of the fielding that followed.
Smith struggled initially against Sreesanth, beaten several times outside off stump, but there were also a couple of short and wide offerings for him to muscle away past point. RP was a lot less impressive, struggling to find any semblance of consistency, and McKenzie meted out the punishment, driving and pulling with panache.
After 10 futile overs of pace, Anil Kumble brought himself on and bowled a maiden, but that was merely a lull before another McKenzie flourish. A languid drive and a powerful cut for four brought up the 50 and further transgressions in line from Kumble were ruthlessly punished by a batsman in prime form.
Smith was perfectly content to play the supporting role, but he too had no intention of letting the bad ball pass unpunished. Harbhajan Singh was swept fine and then cut for fours, and when Kumble pitched short, a meaty cut easily pierced the field. With the hard, brown pitch only likely to become more placid as the day wore on, India's predicament at lunch time was enough to kill the appetite.
They tightened up a little after the interval, with Sreesanth almost providing the breakthrough. There was an element of controversy as Smith appeared to inside edge one behind, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni dived to his right to hold on to the chance. As he got up, though, the ball dropped out of his gloves, and Asad Rauf, the umpire, showed no interest in the appeal. Smith rubbed it in with a pull for four, and then inflicted further misery with four boundaries in Sreesanth's next over.
As has so often been the case when India appear bereft of inspiration, it was Kumble who provided hope. Smith was tempted into an uppish on-drive, and the man stationed at silly mid-on for the stroke, VVS Laxman, held on to the chance with his outstretched right hand.
After Smith's exit, McKenzie, initially quiet after lunch, took charge. There were a couple of magnificent cover-drives off Sreesanth and the disappointing RP, and when Harbhajan finally returned, he was lofted down to long-off and deep midwicket. Amla too blossomed after a sedate start, easing some gorgeous strokes through the covers as the bowling wilted under the hot sun. By the time Harbhajan finally broke through, having McKenzie edge one to slip, the scoreboard indicated the rude health of South Africa's innings.
Amla, who made his debut at the Eden Gardens on South Africa's last tour of India, was a much more confident proposition. Unflustered and in control, he drove and cut with timing and grace. With the fielding descending to joke standard, the singles also came easily, and it was entirely against the run of play that India got their next wicket.
Jacques Kallis had made just 13 when he popped one up off the inside edge to forward short leg, and he turned and walked even as Harbhajan bellowed out his appeal. But any thoughts of scything through the middle order gradually vanished as Amla and Ashwell Prince moved into attritional mode in the final session.
Once again, it was Kumble who hauled his team back into it, with a brilliant catch to his left that sent back Prince for 23. But de Villiers and Amla saw it through to stumps without too many alarms, leaving India with the task of starting afresh with the second new ball on Thursday. They certainly can't afford to repeat the sloppiness of day one.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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