Spunk and upright seam strip away the facade of South African invincibilty December 16, 2006

The emperor's new clothes



Hunting in pairs: 'Sreesanth's effort being backed up by a splendid opening burst from Zaheer Khan' © Getty Images

In many ways, Saturday's events at the Wanderers were as bizarre as the James Buster Douglas haymaker that stripped Mike Tyson of his invincible veneer. And though Sreesanth will deservedly get the plaudits after the first of what will surely be many five-wicket hauls, the seeds of an improbable upset were planted earlier in the day when VRV Singh came out and played an innings that was as effective as it was comical to watch.

Despite Sourav Ganguly's defiance, South Africa were well on top at that stage. But VRV Singh's manic hitting lifted far more than the run-rate. It hit South Africa full in the face like a bucket of cold water, and you could actually see the spirits rise in the Indian dressing room. When Dinesh Karthik came out with some unscheduled drinks, he was laughing uproariously at VRV Singh's back-away-and-wallop antics. By the time the team came out to field, they were buzzing.

And they didn't just buzz either. Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan stung the opposition early, and as early as lunch, South Africa were in supine position to avoid further punishment. It won't have escaped Mickey Arthur's notice that the Indians used the new ball far better than South Africa did, pitching it fuller and hitting the seam consistently enough on a pitch that demanded it. Things didn't improve at the second time of asking either, with only the remarkable Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis bowling the right length. If the plan was to bounce India out, it's failed miserably on a surface where a good-length delivery hitting the seam was a far superior option.

Andre Nel impressed in patches, but too often let adrenaline and bravado get the better of him. As for Makhaya Ntini, the wicket of Ganguly - to an awful shot at that - was scant consolation after one of the poorest spells he's bowled in recent memory. By contrast, the Indians bowled superbly as a unit, with Sreesanth's effort being backed up by a splendid opening burst from Zaheer Khan. The pressure was relentless, and amply illustrated the truth of that old cliché about quick bowlers hunting in pairs.

Apart from the considerable skill that he showed with the ball, Sreesanth also showcased the kind of mongrel attitude that every winning side needs. Mark Boucher was sledged relentlessly, and then bowled off the inside edge to add insult to verbal injury. But for Nel showing the heart of a true fighter, it would have been even more embarrassing. Except for him (24 balls) and Ashwell Prince, who faced 60 deliveries, no one else lasted even three overs. Even during the abysmal slide to 66 all out at Durban in 1996, India had lasted 34.1 overs. South Africa bested that by a clear nine overs.

If there was a disappointment for India, it was the failure of Virender Sehwag to kick on after getting a start. He had already edged twice through the slip cordon when he sliced one to point, and it was left to Ganguly and VVS Laxman to ensure that the lead was stretched to imposing limits. They added 58 in just 12 overs, with Laxman - who had just 2 from the first 22 balls he faced - batting like a dream by close of play. By then, the Indians had struck 25 fours, testament to poor bowling on a pitch loaded in their favour.

Australia chased down 292 at the Wanderers earlier this year, but South Africa are light years behind as a Test side. The next highest target chased in 50 years of Test cricket here is 217. India's lead is already 311, and could swell further with Laxman and Dhoni at the crease. Sunil Gavaskar reckons that the Oval Test victory that he was part of in 1971 remains the most significant in Indian cricket history, but if Rahul Dravid and his brave men pull this one off, it'll come mighty close.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo