A pair of wickets for Makhaya Ntini and Jacques Kallis handed South Africa a slight advantage on a curtailed, yet absorbing, opening day at the Wanderers in Johannesburg. Two gutsy partnerships from India's experienced middle order helped them recover after an early wobble but loss of wickets at crucial stages, including one at the stroke of stumps, reduced them to a shaky 156 for 5 at the end of the day.
South Africa's pace battery didn't launch as savage an attack as they would have wished, especially with the pitch acting two-paced and the ball darting around. The bowlers took some time to find their radar and none except the metronomic Shaun Pollock made the batsmen play regularly. Andre Nel and Dale Steyn, who was to later pull up with a thigh strain, spewed fire, handing the batsmen some painful body blows, but lack of direction eased the pressure. Yet, Ntini and Kallis summoned probing deliveries when it mattered, induced the batsmen into indiscretion, and edged South Africa ahead.
The timing of the wickets epitomised India's day. Sachin Tendulkar, who crafted a valuable 44, fell as tea approached; Rahul Dravid, who'd got through a rough period in the second session, drove expansively just after tea; and VVS Laxman, who'd applied himself for 104 minutes and found his free-flowing mode, fell right at the end of the day. Had he not been dismissed, and had he continued his gritty partnership with Sourav Ganguly, one would have been tempted to call it India's day. In one final moment, the scales tilted.
Things could have been much worse for India. After an anti-climactic start to the day, when damp patches on the pitch delayed play by 90 minutes, India were struggling at 14 for 2 with their openers continuing their horror run. The introduction of Pollock, in the seventh over, had transformed the session from a sleepy opening into a charged dogfight. Pitching the ball on the proverbial penny, probing outside off and taunting with his subtle movement, he'd strangled Virender Sehwag into edging an away swinger.
That was when Tendulkar and Dravid showed the kind of application that India 's batting had been crying out for all through this tour. Both weaved out of the way of short deliveries, which were either loopy or zipping, and endured several blows and steely glares. Tendulkar's positive instinct ensured that the scoreboard kept ticking along, while Dravid's bloody-mindedness ensured he got support. Their 69-run stand was India's best effort for the third wicket against South Africa and it tells you the sort of rubble teams have found themselves in the past.
Tendulkar blended cautious defence with gorgeous strokeplay. All his seven fours came on the off side - five beautifully-balanced straight and cover-drives were interspersed with a delicate carve over the slip cordon and a controlled back-cut past gully. He religiously ducked under a barrage of short deliveries from Nel and Ntini and concentrated on tucking around the corner and scampering to the non-striker's end.
Dravid's was a battling effort. He was greeted with a Pollock snorter soon after he walked in, a ball that took off from a good length as if it were propelled by a booster and crashed into his ribs, rendering him breathless for a few moments. He was also struck a few times on his gloves, once close to his injured finger on his right hand, but didn't flinch from the challenge. His unflappability in the face of Nel's fierce sledges were as indicative of his mood as was the judgement which he used to leave deliveries outside off. He brought off a couple of superbly-times boundaries as well - on one occasion crisply pulling a Ntini short one that kept low - and eased them past choppy waters.
Dravid's dismissal brought Ganguly to the middle, a fascinating sub-plot in the larger drama. He began with a confident push to the off side, scampering a quick single, and was in control for most of his 42-ball stay. A Nel lifter smashed him on the left shoulder and a couple of airy wafts missed the full, moving ball but Ganguly's mental fortitude appeared to carry him through. His leaves were confident and one front-foot cover-drive brought back memories of Ganguly of old.
Laxman produced some vintage strokes as well, the delicate maneuver of the wrists and all. Two consecutive drives off Kallis seemed to herald some magical strokeplay but the hardwork came to nought when he feathered an edge off Ntini. The light was getting worse, there was sprinklings of rain in the air and a game hanging on a slender thread swung South Africa's way.
By Dileep Premachandran at Johannesburg
Highlight of the day: The style with which Jacques Kallis picked up the two biggest wickets, of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. Both were undone by deliveries that moved away a touch, just enough to kiss the edge through to the slip cordon. People forget that Kallis had 200 Test wickets coming into this game, and he made it 201 and 202 either side of tea with the two biggest scalps possible. For a man who looks like he's lumbering in, he delivers one heavy ball too, clocking over 140 km/h several times during a splendid nine-over spell.
Lowlight of the day: Virender Sehwag looked like an imposter, treading water 26 balls for four before he got the faintest of edges to a Shaun Pollock delivery. A year ago, he was probably the most exciting batsman in world cricket. Right now, he looks like someone with a learner's license.
Shot of the day: Andre Nel hustled in and offered a bit of width, and Tendulkar just leant forward and creamed it through the covers. It wasn't to last, but that moment of magic kept Indian fans happy a while.
Ball of the day: In his second over back in the evening, Makhaya Ntini got one to come in with the angle and straighten to take the outside edge. The way Laxman was batting, it needed a special delivery to send him on his way, and Ntini produced it just as the light worsened enough for the umpires to take the players off.
Catch of the day: Graeme Smith's delight after grabbing a low chance at first slip was all too apparent. After a hesitant start, Dravid was batting beautifully but when Kallis induced the edge, Smith did the rest.
Message of the day: The final paragraph of the press release given out to explain the "dampness in the wicket [sic]" went like this: "The Gauteng Cricket Board supports Chris Scott 100% as he made a decision that he believed was the correct one. He is the expert in his field and, as we all know, has won the award as leading Groundsman in South Africa over the last three years." Talk about getting defensive.
Off the park: Rumours have been circulating about Wasim Akram working with Irfan Pathan for days, and repeated requests for clarification from the team management resulted in a handwritten note from Greg Chappell being sent to the press box. "We are grateful for Wasim's offer of assistance," it said. "I spoke with him in Durban during the ODI series.and told him that I was happy for him to speak to Irfan as long as Irfan agreed. Irfan said he was happy to speak with Wasim away from match time. At the end of the ODI series, Wasim left South Africa, and has only just returned. So to my knowledge, no conversation has taken place. If any discussion is to take place, it will only be at a time and a place that suits Irfan." So much for the old guru-shishya dynamics.