South Africa v India, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 1st day January 2, 2007

The opening gambit and inspiring precedents

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Silencing the critics: Wasim Jaffer made a fluent 116 after a run of indifferent form in this series © Getty Images

Three years ago, India followed up an epochal victory at Adelaide with a disappointing defeat at the MCG. But even as the pundits discussed how the momentum had been squandered, they came storming back at Sydney, reducing Steve Waugh to a bit-part player in his farewell Test before a typically gutsy final-day 80 saved Australian blushes. Failure to win that game still rankles with many of these Indian players, and on the opening day at Newlands, the team showed all the resolve that typified that Sydney effort.

There are parallels too with another decisive Test, at Rawalpindi in April 2004. There too, India had lost the preceding game, only to storm back with a superb bowling performance on the opening day that set up an innings victory. But if you look deeper, you can spot even more similarities.

Then, as now, the batting order was re-jigged for a winner-take-all encounter. At Newlands, it was Virender Sehwag's lack of runs that prompted the gambit. At Rawalpindi, it was a problem of plenty, with Sourav Ganguly returning from injury and Yuvraj Singh hard to displace after a magnificent century at Lahore.

In that scenario, it was the luckless Akash Chopra that made way, despite having added 160 for the opening wickets with Sehwag in the opening Test of the series. And though Ganguly spoke on the eve of the game of either he or Yuvraj opening the batting, it was the diminutive Parthiv Patel that walked out to face the new ball with Sehwag. The record books show that his feisty half-century played an immense part in India's romp to victory.

Once Mahendra Singh Dhoni's bruised fingers ruled him out, it was always likely that Dinesh Karthik might be asked to open. A similar crisis of confidence, albeit in one-day cricket, had seen Sehwag moved down the order in the home ODIs against South Africa a year ago. He responded with a superb unbeaten 77 as India eased to victory in Bangalore.

It remains to be seen whether he'll kick-start an idling Test career here, but the hard work has already been done for him, and the other middle-order batsmen. No Indian opening pair had added more than 90 on South African soil before, leave alone bat out two sessions, but Wasim Jaffer and Karthik did that with a partnership that grew ever more easy on the eye as the game went on.

Karthik was compact and assured, and undoubtedly helped by South Africa's new ball attack giving him plenty of deliveries to leave. The decision to promote him had certainly not been a knee-jerk one, and you could see why the likes of Rahul Dravid, Greg Chappell and VB Chandrasekhar, whose term as selector ended just a few months ago, were confident that he could do a job at the top of the order.

Karthik himself had compiled a massive score for his club side as opener, and urged VVS Laxman to let him open the batting during the Duleep Trophy earlier this season. The results were mixed, but he had shown enough evidence of his temperament and range of strokes during a vital knock of 93 against Pakistan in the Kolkata Test of 2005.

Before this game, he averaged a mediocre 18.84 from his 10 Tests, but it's easy to forget that he's still six months short of his 22nd birthday. The wicketkeeping job is Dhoni's for the moment, but Karthik has certainly thrown his India cap into the ring when it comes to selection of specialist batsmen.

If some of the cynics had had their way, Wasim Jaffer wouldn't even have been wearing India colours here. Indifferent form in two one-day games and twin failures in the opening Test at the Wanderers were enough to increase the clamour for Gautam Gambhir. It doesn't help that Jaffer is no Flash Harry whose face beams down from a thousand billboards, but how easily the critics forgot his role in saving the Nagpur Test against England, and the double-century in Antigua.

In the nine Tests since his return, Jaffer had outscored Sehwag by 192 runs, averaging nine runs more per innings. At Kingsmead, he was the Indian batsman who appeared most fluent, though his entire Test match was destined to be judged on the basis of the horrendous shot he played to get out in the second innings.

He needed this hundred just as much as the team did, and all the talk this evening will be of brave gambits, not insane experimentation. The margin between success and failure - and hosannas and rotten eggs - really is that thin at this level. And as India look to day two on a pitch that should still be a slumbering beauty, they can take plenty of heart from ghosts of New-Year-Tests past. At Sydney, they finished the opening day on 284 for 3. The unconquered batsmen? Tendulkar and Laxman.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo