India v South Africa, 2nd Test, Ahmedabad, 1st day April 3, 2008

Clueless against pace and seam

With all due respect to Dale Steyn and Co, it was India, when confronted with a something unusual for this part of the world and a bit of swing, that ran scared

Motera Marauders: South Africa's fast bowlers led a day for domination for the visitors in Ahmedabad © AFP

There are two ways to look at India's embarrassing capitulation [76 in 20 overs and 109 minutes] on the first morning of the Ahmedabad Test: South Africa bowled out of their skins on a pitch with a tinge of green, or India, when confronted with conditions which were unusual for this part of the world, ran scared. The truth is, both factors contributed to the shocking pre-lunch collapse.

India, Twenty20 champions and usurpers of Australia's farewell home ODI tri-series, bowled out for 76 in 20 overs? Surely something must be up with the pitch? To quell all doubts and answer most questions, not a single dismissal was because of any alarming misbehaviour from the surface. A couple of batsmen fell to excellent deliveries, but the others simply combusted against a lively pace attack with a series of haphazard shots that would have made anyone cringe. It's all right scoring over 500 on a featherbed in Chennai but on a surface encouraging seam, India were clueless.

Miles away from Cape Town and Durban, South Africa's fast bowlers made for a dangerous troika. Makhaya Ntini was quick and slightly short, Dale Steyn quicker and straight, and Morne Morkel used his height to extract bounce.

The slightest bit of movement had India's batsmen in a bundle of nerves. First up, Ntini and Steyn bowled far better than when Wasim Jaffer and Virender Sehwag came out on the second evening in Chennai. Then they had bowled fuller, perhaps looking for swing, but here they pitched shorter and reaped the rewards spectacularly. There was a true South African rhythm, short of a length, occasionally full, and it worked wonderfully.

Maintaining that tempo, these three bowlers - who arguably form the most potent pace attack around - left India with no answer. Ntini, especially, and Steyn varied their lengths, starting off straight and just back of a good length. Jaffer and Sehwag were casualties of poor shot selection, with Sehwag playing at one that could have been left alone. VVS Laxman was greeted with a first-ball bouncer from Steyn and seven deliveries later walked off in a daze, shouldering arms to one that came in and clipped the top of off. The movement shouldn't have surprised Laxman, for Ntini mostly delivers from wide of the stumps and brings the ball in.

The variation continued to flummox India. Rather than try and bounce Sourav Ganguly early in his innings, Ntini pitched full and caught the batsman amidships, as if in anticipation of a short one. Then came the ball of the morning. Steyn followed up five back-of-a-length deliveries and two wides with one on a good length in line with off stump. It was almost mesmerising, the way Steyn bustled in and cranked up his pace to slip in a gem.

Morkel tempted Mahendra Singh Dhoni with a wide one, after peppering him with short balls, and he fell for it, nicking to Mark Boucher. That one shot perhaps summed up India's predicament. Anil Kumble chopped on two balls later as Morkel held the length back a fraction. And with India's tail exposed Steyn revved it up fast and straight, knocking Sreesanth almost to his knees.

The same line-up that hadled the WACA surface so successfully at the start of the year looked like an amateur club third XI with a sequence of woeful shots and poor judgment. This wasn't Hamilton in 2002, when India were last out for under 100, or Mumbai in 2006, when they were shot out for exactly 100 against England. Yet six batsmen were bowled and apart from Irfan Pathan and Dhoni no one reached double figures. Subtract 19 extras and the shortest completed innings ever in the subcontinent would've been closer to the summer of 42.

All credit to South Africa. When then they gave the tourists a distinctly Indian surface in Cape Town in early 2007, they combined superbly to take the series. On an away track with a little bit of assistance, their quicks utilised the conditions to leave India in a deep hole. India's recent wins have come when the ball has swung - they have Sreesanth, RP Singh and Pathan, all relying on that factor - but here the onus was on hitting the deck with pace and extracting bounce, and the hosts' vulnerability to these conditions was ruthlessly exposed.

Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo