New Zealand enliven dull day with piercing bowling
The first day of a Test series between two sides that have not played each other in a while is similar to a first date. In conditions where no-one was quite sure what to expect, with the sky promising bowling rewards but the strip batting ones, the introductory dance took even longer. By the end of the day, New Zealand made up for an ordinary first session with an explosive second one to start the series on a strong note.
The score is enough to justify Ross Taylor's decision to put South Africa in to bat, one that was made with an eye above, rather than below. With clouds overhead and the world's best bowler, Dale Steyn, as part of South Africa's armoury, Taylor may have wanted to protect his batsmen. With four fast bowlers in his attack, he may have hoped they would be able to take advantage of the same things he was worried Steyn and Co. would exploit.
Through the first period, it appeared that he was wrong. The bowlers wrestled with unhelpful conditions: they searched for non-existent swing through the cold air and any sign of pace or bounce to assist them from the placid surface. Instead, their efforts only allowed Graeme Smith time to organise himself at the crease. With a vacant leg-side field and a wayward line, they gave Smith the luxury of playing the way he is most comfortable: taking the ball from outside off and playing it to the leg side.
Alviro Petersen's dismissal was the only cause for early celebration as a lack of penetration allowed a free-flowing partnership to develop between Smith and Hashim Amla, neither of whom looked like in any danger of being dismissed in the first session. Amla described South Africa's position at tea as "good"; considering that they were asked to bat, it was closer to very good.
The break allowed time for New Zealand to remember that conditions alone do not take wickets. And since conditions were not actually bowler friendly, they were unlikely to spook a line-up that has established itself as one of the most solid in the world. What would be needed was piercing, aggressive bowling that would create uncomfortable situations for the batsmen even in fairly friendly surroundings.
Chris Martin understood that best. He returned after the break knowing that it was up to him to change the course of events. "I was probably a little bit more geed up," Martin said. "We didn't operate all that well in the first session and sometimes it's up to the senior guy to take the lead. So it was time to stand up and get the ball in the right areas. The way it panned out was far beyond expectation."
Martin bowled a better length post tea, a slightly fuller one, and a line that was closer to the stumps. After working Graeme Smith over with two deliveries that angled across him, and two that beat the bat, he had done enough to dismiss him with a ball that was not as challenging as the other four. "He bowled well but we also had a few soft dismissals," Amla said. "If I look at the wickets, the one of Graeme, it wasn't a great wicket-taking ball."
The deliveries that removed Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers were wicket-taking balls and served as an indication that conditions had changed. Under clearing skies, and in warmer air, Martin found swing and had better control over the ball. Although he sent down what Daniel Vettori called "the worst hat-trick ball ever," short and on Jacques Rudolph's hips, he had prised open a gap big enough to give New Zealand a glimpse of what could be achieved.
Tim Southee and Trent Boult searched for similar movement but produced loose spells to allow Amla and Jacques Rudolph to score at more than five runs an over. Instead of restricting runs and continuing to create pressure their lengths wavered in every over, inviting boundaries. Again, it was up to an experienced player to step up and Daniel Vettori did it by getting a grip on the scoring and repeatedly beating Amla in the flight before dismissing him.
With South Africa's middle order exposed, Doug Bracewell had a burst at the end, bowling a collection of fast, swinging deliveries, including a selection of yorkers. Although he overstepped at a crucial time and could have had Jacques Rudolph out lbw had he not, Bracewell's dismissal of Dale Steyn opened the doors to the tail.
From searching for a way to stem a gushing run flow, New Zealand were able cut it off close to the source. Martin is aware that they are far from finished and need more of their second-session determination, rather than their first-session lethargy, to keep themselves in the driver's seat.
"The job is not really done. It's just a little pocket of the game that we played well in so far," Martin said, an indication that New Zealand are wary of South Africa's lower order, which Amla hopes will come through. "We've had days like this before and we have come out on top," Amla said. "Let's see how long we can take it. Vernon [Philander] is a proper allrounder." Then, a massive smile crept over his face. "And then, you've got Morne [Morkel] and Imran [Tahir]." The latter, in particular, is who New Zealand will want to be bowling at as early as possible on the second day.
Edited by Dustin Silgardo
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent