South Africa v India, 1st Test, Johannesburg, 2nd day December 19, 2013

Tenacious India seamers rewrite script

The team has slipped from promising positions in overseas Tests in the past, but the Zaheer Khan-led bowling attack helped India maintain a firm grip on the second day

Dravid: India recognised and won critical moment

The first session of the second day had a bad old feeling for India. A movie seen before. A movie fresh in the mind.

In the first Test of their tour of Australia in 2011-12, India were 214 for 2 just before stumps on day two. Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid got two beauties either side of stumps, and India collapsed. India still came back in the match - they had Australia effectively at 78 for 4 in the second innings - but bowled poorly to Michael Hussey and Ricky Ponting. Never to come back in the series.

In the first Test of their tour of England, India troubled the hosts on day one but lost Zaheer Khan to injury. On the second day they had England at 62 for 5, but when they came back from lunch with a win still a remote possibility, India bowled Suresh Raina instead of an on-fire Ishant Sharma, and another big moment was lost. Two more big moments were lost in the next Test - the Stuart Broad-Graeme Swann partnership, and then a collapse with a big first-innings lead in sight. It all spiralled out of control after that.

On both tours, with those big moments lost, India didn't have the intensity, at times the fitness, and at others the skill, to come back. Days in the field became longer, batting innings passed in a blink of the eye, and India just kept running on the treadmill of defeat. After giving a good account of themselves on the first day - better than was expected but only good enough to keep the match in balance - India collapsed to a mix of good bowling and meek batting, in Zaheer's case. Zaheer came back well with the ball, almost had who is believed to be his bunny, Graeme Smith, but the catch was dropped. When they went into tea, India had only 162 runs in the bank, and were looking at a long South Africa batting line-up.

It was natural to be put in mind of the previous two tours. The two big moments were lost. Except that this time the 118 for 1 at tea did disservice to how well India had bowled. They had learned the lesson from the South Africa quicks, who bowled too short on day one and got all the wickets with fuller lengths on day two. Just that they had been unlucky at times. It would be a test of character, and also skill, to come back in the final session and keep the game alive.

The big difference here was that India still had a fit and intense three-man pace attack - the spinner not required so far might play a part in the final innings - and a lively pitch to work with. The last time Zaheer bowled more than 20 overs in a day's play was at MCG in 2010, when India lost those big moments. Even then his fitness and intensity were not quite in the clear. Today, after India had batted for more than an hour at the start of the day, Zaheer sent down 22 overs, the last as intense as the first, despite all the plays and misses and the drop catch. He was finally rewarded with Smith's wicket, 49 runs later than he should have been.

The rudder this attack badly needed had been provided by this new and fit Zaheer. He was not that great in the field, but the man has to pace himself. Zaheer has earned the right to such small allowances in an imperfect attack. Ishant and Mohammed Shami were no less intense. They kept bowling up, and not just floating it. There was a lot of emphasis on "right areas" in press conferences from India, but South African pitches need more. The more came from them. It took tenacity to keep at it despite being denied the results in the middle sessions. As it happens with Ishant, albeit not frequently enough, once he gets on a roll, things keep falling in place. Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis in two balls is as good as it gets in Test cricket. Shami delivered JP Duminy and AB de Villiers in the same over. India had come back from having lost the big moment. Those horrible memories were now being put back in the filing drawer.

It was not just the intensity. There was skill involved. On an outfield that had taken a lot of rain - fielders were slipping at its edge - India did something South Africa couldn't: reverse the ball. That added to the doubt for the batsmen. The ball was maintained superbly. The series was alive. This was reassurance that Virat Kohli's hundred on day one was not just a flicker. Even when Vernon Philander and Faf du Plessis got into a partnership, the field didn't spread out as was the case on those two previous two tours. The bowlers' intensity and fitness played a big part in it as did the fact that the pitch was offering some movement even with a 60-over-old ball.

That catch dropped by Rohit Sharma might still prove to be a big moment lost. Through that 67-run partnership between Philander and du Plessis, India will know beating South Africa - a 13-man team through the all-round roles of Kallis and de Villiers - in a Test is an incredibly difficult task. An extra batsman or an extra bowler pop out of nowhere to make you fight that extra fight. However, India have already not only exceeded expectations, they have done more than their bit to make this a classical Test.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on December 20, 2013, 10:41 GMT

    I have been saying this for a long time now and say it again. If the South Africans are going to prepare seaming and bouncy tracks, they too will suffer, as Indians bowlers, right from the time of Kapil Dev, Madan Lal and Roger Binny have done well when it seams and swings.

  • Dummy4 on December 20, 2013, 8:19 GMT

    of course ZAHEER ISHANT AND SHAMI wil do it

  • Richard on December 20, 2013, 7:51 GMT

    I never understand why the Indians who comment here are so hard on their team and individual players. I'm a South African fan, but I think the Indian team has done a brilliant job, both batting and bowling, in conditions that are unfamiliar to them. They are providing an excellent contest forthe no. 1 Test side. May the best team win!

  • Etienne on December 20, 2013, 7:51 GMT


    275 in last innings will too much (sic) for this overrated number1 team

    only rain can save south africa

    Just wanted to preserve these nuggets for posterity!

  • Dru on December 20, 2013, 7:21 GMT

    Yes India have done really well and exceeded all expectations and full credit to them but its only day 2 and so much of the game still remains. I think this article has jumped the gun assuming India win or draw the test and India would not drop the ball when it counts in a test that the opponent is 6 down in the first innings! A bit pre-mature to be beating these drums I reckon.

  • Abhishek on December 20, 2013, 7:01 GMT

    Indian fans like me would be happy the team is at least fighting hard abroad- but the point remains about losing the key moments. Sloppy fielding such as the one by Rohit Sharma could be one such point where all the hard work was undone- everyone, including Indian fans, knows Faf DuPlessis!

  • Gopalakrishna on December 20, 2013, 7:01 GMT

    Smith, Amla and FAF are second innings big scorers! I think we lost a plot by playing too defensively yday morning. Dhoni doesnt have the technique for it anyway!

    But I am already very happy, atleast SA are not running away with a win. We are putting up a wonderful fight and thats all I expect this young team to do. We will take SA down the next series once we get the experience. Good luck team India.

    But a bit taken aback by comments that we will win this match easily!!!!

  • Dummy4 on December 20, 2013, 6:46 GMT

    Day 3 will be crucial. If Ind can prevent SA from taking a big lead, and follow it up with some decent batting and take a lead of 200+, SA can come under serious pressure on Day 5 with the cracks in the pitch widening offering uneven bounce and some help for Ashwin.

  • Naresh on December 20, 2013, 6:35 GMT

    Moments are lost in the game when our fielders drop catches. This is the reason why sometimes you see Dhoni retaining good fielders like Raina and Jadeja in the test team. Rohit and Ashwin dropped catches which could influence the result. We saw it in the ODI as well when off Yadav's bowling a catch was dropped. The opposition dont waste those - INDIA DOES. The bowlers are then forced to work extra hard for the next chance. How many times have we seen the tailenders snatch the game from us? Our tailenders hardly contribute with the bat accept when playing in India!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Satish on December 20, 2013, 6:08 GMT

    I think as far as positives are concerned that India has taken a huge stride forward. I still expect SA to win this mainly because they won't bowl nor bat as poorly as they did in the first innings. But India has given them a scare. The bowling was spot on and the batting gutsy. A 100 run lead would have put India in the drivers but with the lead finally whittling down to around 20 or even a deficit I think the game starts evenly and it's a 2-innings shootout.

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