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The Report by Siddarth Ravindran
December 19, 2013
South Africa 213 for 6 (Smith 68, Philander 48*, Ishant 3-64) trail India 280 (Kohli 119, Philander 4-61) by 67 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Match Point: India's length trapped SA batsmen
Any South Africa fans who decided to head to the Wanderers after tracking the first two sessions at work or college, would have been gobsmacked on taking their seat. Instead of seeing their mighty side extend their dominance, South Africa's heavyweight batting had been taken apart. That too by Ishant Sharma, lately the punchline of most jokes about Indian cricket. South Africa had suddenly slid from 130 for 1 to 146 for 6.
It was left to Vernon Philander, who had rolled over the Indian lower order in the first hour, to lead South Africa's resistance with the bat, frustrating India for nearly two hours and even up the match.
The major drama after tea was preceded by the first two sessions going almost entirely South Africa's way. MS Dhoni and Ajinkya Rahane started the day cautiously, scoring nine runs in the first eight overs. South Africa's bowlers had learnt their lessons from the first day, though, and shifted their line closer to the stumps to be rewarded abundantly as India could only add 25 before losing their final five wickets.
Then Graeme Smith played the sort of innings he specialises in - ugly, but effective. There was a painful inside-edge onto his knee early on, loads of lbw appeals, outside edges and chinese cuts but Smith, as ever, persevered to a half-century, cashing in whenever the ball was full and on his pads. At the other end, Hashim Amla was beginning to showcase his easy-on-the-eye strokeplay after having begun scratchily.
India's trio of quick bowlers - Zaheer Khan, Mohammed Shami and Ishant - had been pitching it up and worrying the batsmen in the second session, without much luck, underlined by R Ashwin putting down a low Smith chance at first slip. There was some uneven bounce on offer, the ball was moving around, and India had three quicks bowling well together after a long time, but South Africa somehow managed to lose just one wicket in 38 overs.
It all changed with a bad misjudgment from Amla, shouldering arms to a typical incoming delivery from Ishant to lose his offstump. Worse followed for South Africa as Jacques Kallis fell lbw for a golden duck, trapped in the crease by a full ball, leaving Ishant on a hat-trick and India on a high. AB de Villiers negotiated the wide hat-trick ball easily, but in the next over itself, South Africa lost their other set batsman as Zaheer had Smith lbw, missing the ball while looking to play across the line.
Shami joined the party and de Villiers joined the list of batsmen who were hesitant to get on the front foot. It was looking bleak for South Africa when Shami's persistent back-of-a-length bowling was rewarded by JP Duminy nicking to slip. India's recent home success has been built on spin, but today it was all about their pace bowlers as Ashwin was used for only two overs in the first 55. One drawback for India on the reliance on pace bowlers was the tardy over rate, as India finished the day nine short, leaving MS Dhoni potentially facing a ban for the next game and his side certainly facing a hefty fine.
Zaheer's fitness was on display as he went through 22 overs without tiring, and he constantly bowled in the mid-130s, speeds which he couldn't consistently manage before his axeing. He has been an on-field mentor to plenty of younger Indian fast bowlers and that was on display today as well, putting an arm around Shami and advising him after Philander pulled a short ball for four.
Shami extended the outstanding start to his Test career, but the man who will savour the day the most will be Ishant. He has been reduced to a laughing stock, both on account of having played as many as 51 Tests despite a mediocre record and also his ragged displays on the flat tracks in recent ODIs. There were promising signs early on, when he dismissed Alviro Petersen for a 10th successive low score in Tests and then greeted Amla with a couple of sharp bouncers.
Perhaps the most annoying word for Ishant-baiters is 'unlucky' - used to explain many of Ishant's performances that lacked wickets - and his spell today was veering dangerously towards being branded that as Smith and Amla put on 93 streaky runs. All that changed in a matter of minutes as Ishant revelled in having dismissed two of South Africa's biggest threats, and also justifying his inclusion ahead of the pacier Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar, India's first-choice quick bowler ahead of the West Indies series last month. He'll need to string together more of these spells if he is to earn the fans' trust, but this burst on an away Test against the No .1 side is a great start.
Though India's quicks were near unplayable in the hour after tea, Philander and the last specialist batsman Faf du Plessis tempered the visitors' hopes as stumps approached, sticking around for 21.3 overs and steadily eating into India's advantage. Philander took much of the strike, and though he didn't use his feet too well, he pulled and drove with authority, while du Plessis remained unbeaten thanks to Rohit Sharma putting down a sitter at slip towards close.
That miss could prove pivotal, as with the pitch getting tougher and tougher to bat on, even a slim first-innings advantage will be significant. It's been a riveting two days already in Johannesburg, and Friday promises to be another cracker. The crowds have been thin on the first two days, perhaps on the third, cricket fans will skip their work or college and turn up to watch this yo-yoing clash between the top two sides.
Siddarth Ravindran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Siddarth Ravindran
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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His rapid improvement with the ball has been integral to England coming from behind to lead the series - but that is just one area where Moeen Ali continues to impress
With too great an emphasis on limited-overs cricket, MS Dhoni's side have a set of skills and a level of concentration that are not commensurate with the necessities of Tests