Planning and perseverance pay off
"This was the perfect Test match for us," Graeme Smith said after the crushing win in Ahmedabad. "We dominated from the start." Once South Africa grabbed the jugular, they never let go. It was startling in its routine, impressive in its results.
Smith needed no second invitations to declare on an overnight 494 for 7 when he showed up at the Motera and saw a bit of cloud cover over a slightly damp pitch. That gave South Africa a huge platform from where to seal a 1-0 series lead and the manner in which they proceeded to do it was most clinical. Their energies were high all day, the bowlers never wavered from their plan, and the fielding was first-rate. South Africa never forgot the basics, contrary to India.
Unlike on the manic first morning when sheer pace rattled a trigger-happy line-up, today was about mini-battles and outfoxing the batsmen. Virender Sehwag set about like a runaway caboose, hitting two sixes in Dale Steyn's first over - perhaps for the first time in Test history - but did little to inspire hopes of a great escape. Makhaya Ntini saw that Sehwag was keen to pull the short stuff, and bowled a full one to take him out, lbw. Tick one to the brain-trust.
That method set the tone for the rest. Steyn really turned it on against Wasim Jaffer, hitting lovely lengths and getting the ball to lift. Smith could've easily called back Steyn after Morne Morkel had just removed Rahul Dravid, but he gambled on Jacques Kallis and it worked like a charm. After being shaken up by Steyn, Jaffer was drawn into an overconfident drive against Kallis' gentle medium-pace.
Morkel's dismissal of Dravid was also excellently schemed: pepper him with short deliveries while Ntini invited drives with a fuller length. Notice the sequence of deliveries before the wicket: short and kicking, fuller to draw him forward, back of a length, short on the body and then the quickest of all, banged in short for Dravid to edge to second slip.
VVS Laxman dazzled with three early boundaries that almost took the breath away - a smooth off-drive, a caress off the back foot, and a soft-handed straight drive past the stumps - but stunning shots do not always a battle make, and he eventually fell to Morkel. Having just seen an edge fall short of second slip with a full delivery, Morkel pitched full and wide again to draw a fatal nick.
Even when Sourav Ganguly and Mahendra Singh Dhoni delayed the inevitable with a 110-run fifth-wicket partnership, South Africa didn't wilt. The fielding remained athletic, the pacers ran in hard, and the lone spinner, Paul Harris, didn't retreat after being thumped. Ganguly got an unlucky decision but Dhoni was also set up well: Ntini and Steyn pushed him further and further back, before Ntini slipped in a full one. Dhoni took the bait and fell hook, line and sinker for a near replica of his first-innings dismissal.
Ntini's performance in the subcontinent had been below-par compared to his career numbers, and with all the attention focused on Steyn he remained almost a phantom in Chennai. But today he followed up three huge wickets on day one with three more, netting Sehwag, Dhoni, and Sreesanth. He ran through short spell and long, irrespective of which end he was bowling from, and his captain was all praise. "It was a transition that Ntini needed to make as the leader of the pack, and he's led by example. It was hard work for the bowlers today on a heavy outfield but he stuck to it. I'm proud of him."
|South Africa's quest for a win began with a frenzied opening morning's play and ended in the dying stages of an extended third day, and bar today's second session, they can proudly lay claim to having India's number the whole time|
South Africa were also supreme in their ground fielding. AB de Villiers was excellent wherever he went, pulling off superb stop-and-flicks from short cover and even closer, but it was in the covers that he was sublime, like a ravenous hound after a hare. Even Hashim Amla, whose calm exterior and flowing beard betray a sage, saved plenty of runs with excellent dives up-close. The slip catching was top-draw, none better than Kallis' blinder of a catch towards the end of the day, taken in front of his face as he fell backwards. It was in such examples that South Africa were leagues ahead of India.
The visitors backed their instinct and it paid off superbly. "This is a very balanced side. We've had some tough tours of the subcontinent but we're better for it. For the first time I have a bowling line-up that can do well out here and I'm most comfortable with this side," was Smith's assessment of his unit after the win.
South Africa's quest for a win began with a frenzied opening morning's play and ended in the dying stages of an extended third day, and bar today's second session, they can proudly lay claim to having India's number the whole time. India were beaten in three days by an innings and 90 runs, the first at home since South Africa toured in 2000. This looks the best South African touring side and Smith has a lot to be proud of going to Kanpur.
Jamie Alter is a staff writer at Cricinfo