South African quicks aim to refocus radar
M Vijay vigilantly watched half of the first over of this Test match sail past him. Dale Steyn was steaming in, swinging the ball away, and although he beat Vijay's outside edge once, he also provided enough room outside off stump to ensure the opener was not forced into a shot on three occasions. Eighty overs later, with Steyn taking hold of the second new ball, MS Dhoni watched four out of six balls carry through to AB de Villiers. Sandwiched between those two overs was the reason South Africa did not have more success on the opening day of this series: they did not make the Indian batsmen play enough and did not show enough discipline.
They bowled too wide of off stump and the unexpectedly stoic attitude from India's batsmen left the first day delicately balanced. It also highlighted South Africa's occasional lapses into lethargy, otherwise known as 'starting slowly.'
South Africa, by their own admission, sometimes stutter in their attempt to get off the blocks, especially if they have been on a break. They took half a Test to get into their groove in the UAE after a seven-month layoff, by which time the first match was all but lost. Then, they could not adjust to conditions quickly enough. Today, at the Wanderers, their showing was reminiscent of their display at The Oval last July.
England finished the first day 267 for 3, with Alastair Cook scoring a century. England had been allowed a free pass, as South Africa bowled without the attacking intent they had built their reputation on. Even though Allan Donald said then that they knew width was not an option, they persisted with a line outside the off stump and England's batsmen could settle.
Donald, South Africa's bowling coach, recognised the similarities between that day and this one immediately. "I went back to the day we had at The Oval where we asked the right questions to start with but at the same time, we were slightly wide and a little bit too short," he said.
India's openers left almost half of the first ten overs - 27 deliveries out of 60. Vijay spent 41 balls being watchful. He ignored anything he had to reach for, for more than an hour. He only faltered after being given a working over by Morne Morkel, who, as he did at The Oval, delivered the most impressive of South Africa's opening acts.
Morkel extracted steep bounce and used the short ball to good effect, directing it at the batsmen's bodies in the hope of getting them to fend to short leg. It almost worked. After Vijay was dropped at short leg, Morkel sensed he would be vulnerable and dished up the fuller one, which Vijay could not stop fishing at.
Mistakes like that were what South Africa were waiting for. At 24 for 2, with both India batsmen falling to a plan and the evidence of the one-day series still fresh in their minds, they could hardly be faulted for expecting more of the same. Cheteshwar Pujara only offered one chance - when he edged Morkel short of first slip - and even though Virat Kohli initially looked uncertain, especially against Morkel, he soon showed his prowess on the back foot.
With Pujara's determination and Kohli's strokeplay, the frustrators became the frustrated. Kohli had time to ease in and sensed it would get easier for him if he rode out the initial test. "I don't think they were threatening at all," he said. "It was all about respecting the conditions. After that, you have to respect yourself. You have to respect the good balls that are thrown at you and use your opportunity to hit when you could. Later on, they started bowling on fifth, sixth stump."
That was after lunch and it was when South Africa's day threatened to unravel. The usually impeccable line of Vernon Philander veered much wider than usual and the spinners, on a first-day Wanderers pitch, were ineffective and expensive. Imran Tahir's mash-up of long-hops and full tosses provided relief and runs for India, proving that patience pays.
Still, Donald said South Africa never felt India took the game away. "They fired down," he said. The run-out of Pujara and Kohli's soft dismissal kept South Africa on a fairly even keel. Despite Ajinkya Rahane being handed the same leeway, with South Africa offering as much, if not more, width at the end of the day as they did at the beginning, Donald was largely satisfied. "I will say I will take it. It was a mixture of asking the right questions but then being a bit sloppy in patches. There's no doubt we have to make a big play tomorrow."
For that, Donald will ask them to remember The Oval. South Africa surged back on the second day with much more conviction and purpose. The chat Donald had with them may have had something to do with it. "I went to bowlers individually and spoke to them," he said. "I chatted with Dale especially about setting the tone."
Led by a fired-up Steyn, South Africa took the last seven England wickets for 114 runs. "We locked in so well and didn't give England anything," Donald said. "That's what we have to do tomorrow. There is a lot riding on tomorrow's first session and how the bowlers set the tone."
In recent months, South Africa have not stacked up bad days and Donald is convinced that won't change, especially if he has something to do with it. "When we have a rusty day, we get back into things and we pride ourselves on how we find a way. We have done that successfully against teams all around the world. Tomorrow is another one of those days where we have to do it."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent