Steyn's best leaves South Africa on top
Those 22 yards never mattered less. With one of the most lethal and joyful spells of pace and swing seen in India, a red-hot Dale Steyn took the pitch out of the equation and led South Africa to the verge of what should be close to their finest Test victory. He took out two in the morning with conventional swing, and followed it up after tea with a spell of 3.4-2-3-5 with the old ball. The momentum created was too much to not enforce a follow-on, and Steyn had enough fuel in him to come back and dismiss Virender Sehwag, the only batsman who troubled South Africa in the first innings.
Sehwag, whose century was remarkable for its restraint - and one of his best in Tests, will rue his unremarkable first-innings dismissal. He had revived India from 56 for 3 but, when he lobbed a full and wide delivery from Wayne Parnell straight to sweeper-cover, he kick-started a collapse of seven wickets for 41 runs.
In the lead-up to the Test, Steyn had famously said, "A 150 or 145km yorker is absolutely no different whether you bowl it here in Nagpur, or Chennai, Johannesburg, Perth." Turns out even if Steyn is not bowling yorkers, but swinging it accurately at a healthy pace, and if it all comes together in one spell, the pitch matters little.
It all started with the sighter from hell from his friend and new-ball partner, Morne Morkel. Gautam Gambhir could consider himself unlucky for getting this delivery first up: back of a length, couldn't get forward, couldn't go back, 145ks, angling into him, making him commit, and then leaving him enough to kiss the outside edge. In the second innings, Gambhir would shoulder arms to a similar delivery, and it would jag in and kiss the outside edge of the off stump. Three balls from Morkel, zero runs, out twice. When it's not your day, it's probably not your evening either.
In between those two wickets there was Steyn. Consistent outswing in his first spell kept Sehwag quiet, and when he got M Vijay on strike it was time for some breakfast. Ball one: full, swinging away, defended by Vijay off the back foot, in front of his body. Ball two: Steyn goes a foot wider, the wrist goes outside of the ball, Vijay shoulders arms, and the inswinger pegs back the prone off stump.
Sachin Tendulkar was going to be tougher to get, but got he was. He came forward and off-drove an outswinger for four. End of over. The first ball of the next over was similar, elicited a similar shot, but was about a foot shorter, which meant Tendulkar wasn't close enough to it, hence the edge.
Sehwag was the most difficult to get, and along with the debutant S Badrinath brought India back to even terms. Don't go by his strike-rate of 78.41. He was as watchful as is possible for him. He ignored short deliveries outside off, mostly scored down the ground, foiled Morkel's plan of tucking him up by flicking towards midwicket, and even didn't treat Paul Harris' spin as the trash he thinks spinners are.
Immediately after reaching a disciplined century, though, Sehwag played an over that went completely against the character of his knock. Parnell consistently bowled full and wide deliveries with a strong off-side field; two balls went for boundaries and one for five wides, but the last one fetched him the big wicket. No doubt there was a trap in place, and Sehwag couldn't resist walking in.
By tea Badrinath had put behind him an edgy start, and nudged and nurdled his way to a creditable half-century, and something resembling a partnership was forming between him and MS Dhoni. Business, though, was about to pick up after the break.
Dhoni padded up to Harris in the first over, and the ball kicked up and took his glove, invitingly hanging, and started the slide towards - barring miracles - a first Test defeat as captain. In the next over, Steyn reversed it in towards Badrinath, who couldn't keep it down and chipped to short midwicket. The field placement showed South Africa knew what they were doing.
Had the stumps owned feet in that spell of play, Steyn's reverse-swing would have still found them. The other debutant, Wriddhiman Saha, had clearly been asleep when Steyn took Badrinath with an inducker, and almost got a return catch from Harbhajan Singh with that delivery. The first ball Saha faced from Steyn he shouldered arms, but the off stump had no such luxury.
Zaheer Khan and Amit Mishra didn't look interested in standing on the burning deck, kept backing away, and before you could say "collapse", they were both bowled. Had Harbhajan not got his back leg in the way, he would have lost his stumps too. Immediately followed the definitive image, Graeme Smith motioning towards Harbhajan and Ishant Sharma, who were the last pair, asking them to tell their openers to see Steyn and Morkel in 10 minutes.
The aggression followed, the momentum followed, and after Gambhir's wicket, Morkel gave Sehwag a perfect implementation of his plan. Dug in short, the ball seamed in, beat Sehwag's bat, and hit him flush in the ribs. The bat went flying away, down went Sehwag in pain, and the edge outside off was not too far off.
Vijay and Tendulkar batted better in their second efforts of the day, added 38 runs for the third wicket, and made sure others weren't taking guard for the second time in one day.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo