Sourav Ganguly and Irfan Pathan launched a superb counterattack in the afternoon after the highly-rated Morne Morkel cut a swathe through the Indian top order at Sedgars Park in Potchefstroom. Ganguly, on his return to the side after nearly a year away, chiselled out a fine 83, but even he was eclipsed by Pathan, who showed tremendous temperament and technical perfection to score a century on a pitch where there was plenty of bounce and carry for the quicker bowlers. By stumps, with Harbhajan Singh also having contributed an entertaining 47, the Indians were healthily placed at 316 for 7.
Morkel's pace had reduced India to 69 for 5 at lunch, but the 139-run partnership between Ganguly and Pathan changed the complexion of the game. However, when Ganguly was caught behind off a Friedel de Wet delivery that lifted off a length, there was still much to be done. Harbhajan's stroke-filled intervention wrested the initiative, and by the time Pathan reached his century with a glorious six over midwicket off Jean Paul Duminy, there were rousing cheers and words of encouragement from the Indian dressing-room balcony.
Ganguly came to the crease with the scoreboard showing 37 for 3, just 45 minutes after India had taken first strike at the invitation of Jacques Rudolph. Three slips, a gully, a short point and short leg greeted him, but two runs guided to third man calmed the nerves somewhat. A streaky edge through the slip cordon followed, but thereafter there were some reassuring strokes straight off the middle of the bat.
Having gone in for lunch on 20, Ganguly was straight back to work after the interval, slashing Alfonso Thomas over the slip cordon for four. He then unfurled a gorgeous square-drive off Morkel, before repeating the shot against Mornantau Hayward. Hayward's riposte was a nasty bouncer that thudded into the helmet just above the right ear. There was a brief stoppage as the physio treated him, but the thought of going off wasn't even entertained.
Instead, confronted with a 7-2 offside field, he laced Hayward through point for two peachy boundaries before being the recipient of a stroke of luck. Morkel got one to fly off the outside edge, but Vaughn van Jaarsveld spilled the chance at gully. A glance for four off de Wet, and a single to midwicket took him to 50, off just 84 balls, and celebration came in the shape of a magnificent square drive for four.
The arrival of Paul Adams was the proverbial red rag, and an effortless cut through the covers took him into the swinging 60s. It wasn't all a one-man show though, as Pathan batted with immense application and skill at the other end. A superb cover-drive off Hayward got him going, and though an edge off de Wet flew through the slips, his shot selection on the whole was hugely impressive.
With Ganguly easing up as the kettle was put on for tea, Pathan took the initiative, cutting, and driving Morkel for fours, before crashing Adams through the covers twice in the same over. A straight hit to the rope got him to 50 (81 balls), and roused the smattering of people on the grassy mound.
Ganguly came out for the final session and promptly unfurled a magnificent straight-drive off de Wet, but an attempt to cut the same bowler saw him trudge slowly back to the pavilion. The Indians weren't done though. When Morkel returned for a fresh spell, Pathan crashed his first ball through point for four, and Harbhajan tonked Adams for 16 in an over, including a massive six over midwicket. On the day that he was recalled to the Test squad, Adams didn't have a day to remember. Morkel's day too didn't end as he would have hoped, with Rudolph spilling a chance that Zaheer offered to first slip.
For India's top order, it was very much a morning to erase from the memory. Hayward, who once broke Mohammed Azharuddin's hand in a tour game at the Brabourne Stadium, started with a couple of innocuous deliveries, including a wide, and then speared one in at Wasim Jaffer's toes. Swung in from wide of the crease, it rapped him on the back leg, leaving the umpire in no doubt whatsoever.
At the other end, Morkel started with a wide, but the very next delivery, a blistering yorker, crashed into the base of Virender Sehwag's off stump. Before you knew it, Sachin Tendulkar was in the middle, with VVS Laxman for company. Tendulkar flicked one off the pads to get off the mark, and then nudged the singles as both bowlers continued to generate real pace.
Laxman played one exquisite cover-drive, and then pulled Hayward for four when he dropped one short. Tendulkar had played a similarly emphatic pull off Morkel, but could only produce a tentative push when the ball was deliveried from wide of the crease. Justin Kemp gleefully took the edge.
Ganguly and Laxman repaired some of the damage in an hour-long partnership, but the reintroduction of Morkel 15 minutes before lunch pushed the Indians closer to the precipice. A fairly wide and rising delivery had Laxman playing away from his body, and the attempted steer over slip was superbly taken by Kemp at second slip.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni came in and slashed de Wet over cover for four, but Morkel had to have the final say. A ball outside off stump moved away a touch, and Dhoni's flayed drive was wonderfully taken on the dive by Morne van Wyk. Morkel's morning's work of 4 for 29 didn't flatter him, and for all the talk of a batting paradise, the first session had been a sharp descent into hell for the Indians. Thankfully, in Pathan and Ganguly, they found two men who epitomised Ernest Hemingway's phrase about courage being grace under pressure.