India v South Africa, 2nd Test, Kolkata, 1st day February 14, 2010

Petersen conquers Eden Gardens

N Hunter

For years, Issac Petersen has driven members of the international media around in Port Elizabeth. During pleasant rides to hotels on the beautiful seafront, Issac talks about his son, Alviro, asking journalists to remember his name for the future. Now he can rest easy about marketing his son, who, at majestic Eden Gardens, became only the third batsman to score a century on Test debut for South Africa.

With doubts persisting over Graeme Smith's injured finger on the eve of the match, the team management had asked Petersen to mentally prepare himself for a debut. It was a smart move. "Yesterday, they told me [I was] in the team 99%," Petersen said. "So I had the evening to really think it over, and visualise what I wanted to achieve out of it."

Sunday morning, when Graeme Smith called correctly at the toss for the second time in the series, Petersen's wait was over. At 29, he had been running out of time to start his Test career only because he is a specialist opener. He had come into national reckoning in 2006 but the lack of an innings of impact kept him on the fringes of selection. Though he played a few ODIs, it wasn't until England arrived in 2009 that Petersen got a real opportunity. Herschelle Gibbs' downward spiral forced the selectors to think about alternatives and Petersen made a strong case for himself with three half-centuries in all three matches he played.

Those innings were just an extension of his splendid form in domestic cricket. In the 2008-09 season Petersen, playing for Highveld Lions, stacked up 1376 runs in 15 matches, including six centuries, two of which came in the final-round game against the Titans. It was a South African record for most runs in a season, surpassing Hylton Ackerman (1373) and Barry Richards (1285). Ashwell Prince was behind Petersen with 1180 runs last year.

Both Petersen and Prince grew up in the same neighbourhood in the northern suburbs of Port Elizabeth. They learned their cricket at the Gelvandale ground, which had frugal resources, and sharpened their reflexes by batting against tape ball on the streets.

So it was fitting that Petersen replaced Prince as an opener, and the left-hander dropped down to his usual middle-order spot because Mark Boucher was unfit. Prince has been a reluctant opener, but the South African selectors, left with no option, kept him at the top.

Petersen walked out to bat sporting the same smile he had when Graeme Smith presented him with the cap during the team huddle. He started with a boundary in his first over, flicking a loose delivery from Ishant Sharma. During the next four hours, there was a constant flow of innocuous deliveries from the Indians and Petersen, in the company of Hashim Amla, flayed them with ease.

Perhaps India's bowlers, in their attempt to intimidate the debutant, overdid it. Both Zaheer Khan and Ishant were wayward in the crucial first session when the ball swung. They fed him a diet of short deliveries or ones that were pitched on driveable lengths. The early fall of Smith did not deter Petersen either, and he hooked Ishant in the next over. When Zaheer committed the folly of bouncing his opponent, he too was dispatched to the midwicket boundary. "They were trying to get me out early and offered me a couple of boundary balls," Petersen said.

Playing with the full face of the bat, Petersen displayed elegant footwork to get close to the pitch of the ball before deciding on his shot. The presence of Amla at the other end helped him. Amla, the double centurion at Nagpur, played the role Kallis usually does, dominating the spinners, especially Harbhajan, who was hardly bowled in the second session.

Amla's assurance allowed Petersen to grow in confidence. Only in the nineties did he get nervous and offer a chance for the first time, failing to negotiate the reverse swing of Ishant convincingly. He did not succumb, though, and raised his bat after a deserved century, acknowledging the support of his team.

Eden Gardens can be an intimidating venue because of its size, its raucous crowds and the historic battles fought there. AB de Villiers had said on Saturday that it is a special ground to play cricket on, a place every cricketer wants to excel. For Petersen the feeling was the same, especially on the day of his debut, but he did not allow anything to overawe him.