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December 15, 2006
The boundless energy and skill of Makhaya Ntini provided one decisive twist in a first-day tale that hadn't quite been the horror story that everyone had scripted for the Indians. As long as Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid were at the crease, they could dare to hope, and there were some dreamy shots from VVS Laxman too as South Africa appeared to lose their way in the lengthening shadows.
It was wholly appropriate that a cover version of Ben E King's poignant Stand by Me was playing as the openers walked out to bat. On a pitch that still harboured a bit of dampness, Dravid's was a brave decision, similar to the call taken by Sourav Ganguly at Headingley in 2002. India's best chance clearly lay in putting a competitive total on the board and then hoping that Anil Kumble could make something of the plentiful cracks on the surface.
The similarities with Headingley ended there though. That was the Indian batting at its acme, with Dravid in particular playing an innings that will forever be a guide for anyone wanting to bat in seaming conditions. He had an unlikely ally that day in Sanjay Bangar, but visions of a reprise faded as Wasim Jaffer and Virender Sehwag could only add 13 between them.
Tendulkar started in jittery fashion, but then played some gorgeous drives in an encouraging display of positive intent. The partnership with Dravid was worth 69 - an Indian record for the third wicket against South Africa, and testament to how they have always struggled against this opposition - when Jacques Kallis came up with the first of two superb deliveries that crippled India's progress.
India will find the close-of-play score especially galling given how poorly South Africa bowled for vast stretches of the day. Dale Steyn was all over the place with his line and wasn't as quick as he can be, before a recurrence of a quadriceps strain forced him off. Meanwhile, Andre Nel spent as much energy mouthing off as he did in propelling the ball through at lively pace.
In helpful conditions, the bowlers barely made the batsmen play in the initial stages, and Smith made matters worse by keeping the outstanding Pollock out of the attack nearly all afternoon. When he did return, 27 overs after he had finished his first eight-over spell, he posed all sorts of questions of both Ganguly, who he has dismissed six times in Tests, and Laxman. Steyn's extra pace saw him take the new ball, but you just wondered what Pollock might have done with it in conditions that were tailormade for his precise approach.
India never took advantage of the generosity though. Sehwag apart, every batsman faced at least 40 balls, but no one could go on to play the sort of innings that the situation demanded. Given the variable bounce and the widening cracks, anything in excess of 275 could still be handy, but Laxman's dismissal after a beautiful cameo significantly reduced the chances of that. Ganguly gritted his way through some awkward short-pitched balls and considerable verbals from Nel to remain unconquered, but the key man could well be Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
On a pitch like this, a brisk 50 can make all the difference, and despite technical failings, Dhoni is well capable of that. He and Ganguly can also look forward to 24 more overs of the old ball, and an attack with its options reduced by the injury to Steyn. South Africa may have edged the day, but their early profligacy with the ball might yet come back to haunt them.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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