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At Durban, December 26-29, 2010. India won by 87 runs. Toss: South Africa.
After their implosion at Centurion, India threatened to live up to their reputation as poor travellers, especially in South Africa, when they arrived in Durban. Greeted by the greenest Kingsmead pitch in recent memory, and weakened by an injury to Gautam Gambhir (struck on the left hand in the nets the day before the match, aggravating an injury picked up in Centurion), the Indian team were in a familiar position of weakness. What happened next stunned the sceptics, and left even the optimists confused.
When Dhoni lost the toss - for the 12th time in 13 Tests in 2010 - South Africa had their tails up and a lively pitch to exploit. Overnight and morning rains juiced up the pitch just a touch, but when Vijay, Gambhir's replacement, and Virender Sehwag put together a streaky stand of 43, home hopes slipped a little.
Then Steyn, swinging the ball at great pace, only occasionally banging it into the hard surface for variation, got rid of both openers, and an early pattern emerged: India's batsmen would all get starts, but none could push on past the thirties. Dravid poked outside off, Tendulkar played a loose shot, and Laxman, who had resisted hard for 38, watched in horror as a powerful pull off Steyn was somehow plucked out of the air one-handed by Tsotsobe at midwicket. India ended the day at 183 for six, seemingly well on track to emulate their predecessors in South Africa, who frequently followed up a first-game rout with a poor series.
The sun shone in patches on the second day and the pitch appeared to ease, giving little sign of the carnage that would follow. A combination of opportunistic bowling and poor batting resulted in a dramatic day on which 18 wickets fell, and every player from both sides came to the batting crease at one time or another.
India's first innings did not extend long into the second day: 205 looked well short of par, with Steyn picking up his 15th five-for in only 45 Tests. What followed was a passage of play that few could have foreseen. Zaheer Khan roughed up Smith, then got lucky against Petersen, the ball trickling on to the stumps from the outside of the left pad. Kallis, backing up too far, was beaten by a straight drive from Amla that brushed the bowler Ishant Sharma's hand and hit the stumps at the non-striker's end. At 67 for three, South Africa were vulnerable, if hardly in trouble. But de Villiers received a peach from Sreesanth, then Harbhajan Singh got in on the act, trapping Amla in front essaying a halfhearted sweep.
From then on, the South Africans weren't quite sure whether to attack or defend, and Harbhajan made full use of the extra bounce on offer, polishing off the tail to end with four for ten from 7.2 overs. With an entirely unexpected lead of 74, the Indian batsmen rejoined battle. Once again, though, while the conviction was evident and the intent positive, the juice in the pitch ensured that run-scoring was never a formality. While batsmen got starts and occasionally played fluently, danger was never far away. At 56 for four, India were close to handing back whatever advantage they had, with only the redoubtable Laxman showing any signs of ease at the crease.
Wickets fell at regular intervals, but Laxman would not relent. Coming down hard on anything short, he attacked where his team-mates had been tentative. Laxman was reunited with Zaheer at 148 for seven - the exact score at which they came together at Johannesburg in 2006, when India won their first Test on South African soil. In an exact repeat, the pair again added 70, Laxman advancing stealthily towards his first hundred in South Africa. But it was not to be: at 96, just after trying (and failing) to hit Harris for six, Laxman wafted at Steyn to be the last man out.
South Africa, faced with a target of 303, were relying heavily on Amla and Kallis - and Sreesanth took care of both. Amla, cutting at a wide delivery that bounced a touch, provided a low catch to Dhoni, while Kallis was unlucky to receive the ball of the series. Climbing from a good length and jagging back into the right-hander, a Sreesanth special crashed into glove even as Kallis leapt into the air in a forlorn attempt to get out of the way. Sehwag gleefully accepted the catch at gully, and then and there the game was sealed.
Man of the Match: V. V. S. Laxman. Close of play: First day, India 183-6 (Dhoni 20, Harbhajan Singh 15); Second day, India 92-4 (Laxman 23, Pujara 10); Third day, South Africa 111-3 (Kallis 12, de Villiers 17).