South Africa's faster men began with a bang, rattling the Indian top order with seam, pace and bounce, before their batsmen strung together vital partnerships, held their nerve and wrapped up an absorbing opening game of the five-match series at Hyderabad. In a match that turned on several pivots, Yuvraj Singh produced a glorious century and India showed their steel by battling back whenever they fell behind, but ultimately, the happenings in the first hour of the game helped South Africa seal the five-wicket win.
With the pitch easing up as the day wore on, South Africa were always the favourites to get to a target of 250. Graeme Smith kickstarted the chase before the pluck of Ashwell Prince, the experience of Jacques Kallis and the power of Justin Kemp took over. India snapped up wickets at regular intervals, set attacking fields throughout and didn't give in easily but when you are undefeated for 19 games in a row, you certainly know how to win the close ones.
In a new series, against different opponents, in a stadium hosting its first international game, it was India who appeared to be the visiting side as South Africa's faster bowlers delivered a masterful lesson in new-ball bowling methods. Shaun Pollock's precise length combined beautifully with Makhaya Ntini's pace and Andre Nel's zing and they justified Smith's decision to field first on a pitch that offered both seam movement and bounce.
Ntini struck in his very first ball of the series - Virender Sehwag lashed hard at one that was dug in but Prince, at backward point, intercepted it with an acrobatic dive to his left, latching on while he was still airborne. Pollock then nailed Mohammad Kaif with one that jagged back a shade and went on to strike the lethal blow in his next over when he got Sachin Tendulkar to push at one that was full and slightly wide with the umpire upholding the appeal despite considerable doubt. Rahul Dravid and Gautam Gambhir, the Supersub who came in place of Murali Kartik, fell soon and India were reeling at 35 for 5, the hangover of the 6-1 mauling against Sri Lanka was receding rapidly and the Vishaka Stadium was slowly resembling Centurion Park.
Enter Yuvraj and counterpunch followed counterpunch, the most thrilling one being the exhilarating pulled six off Ntini. There was stunning bat speed, glorious drives with pendulum-like follow through, and there was awesome power. Once the intent had been stated, he shifted to a lower gear. Help arrived in the form of Irfan Pathan and the duo went about repairing the damage. Yuvraj preferred to push the ball around rather than give it the mighty thump. Nothing came easy in the middle overs and it was a case of biding one's time and waiting for the right moment to accelerate.
Once the 35th over had passed, Yuvraj began to open out with a few bold strokes and he laid into Kallis in the 38th with a splendid six over long-on. Hurrying between the wickets and stealing singles at the slightest opportunity, he ensured that the score was being pushed along even when the mighty hits weren't being produced. He reached his hundred in style - a massive six over long-on was followed by a savage cut to the point fence - and though he fell soon, Harbhajan Singh, picked up the baton wonderfully. He swiped four fours and two sixes towards the end and ended the innings on a thrilling note.
Until today, Smith averaged 2.33 in the four previous games against India but he quickly went about making amends by bludgeoning the new-ball attack that was bordering on the erratic. Irfan Pathan's inconsistent line was punished with seven fours as Smith scattered him to various corners of the park, producing his characteristic punched flicks, punched cuts and punched drives.
But a double strike, when Justin Ontong and Smith departed in successive deliveries, brought India back into the contest. RP Singh continued the fine form that he had shown against Sri Lanka and despite spraying around seven wides, he was particularly impressive against the left-handers and often got the ball to bounce awkwardly. Along with Harbhajan, he helped India claw their way back into the game as South Africa's run-rate considerably slowed down in the middle overs.
Prince changed that with a sensible approach, milking the spinners in the middle overs and stitching together a fine partnership with Kallis. And despite Prince falling with 85 still needed, and Mark Boucher following him soon, Kallis piloted the innings with assurance and Kemp motored them towards the finish line with biff and blast. Adding 84 in less than 15 overs, the two handled the spinners with ease, rode their luck against the medium-pacers and capitalised on the attacking fields that were set. Despite the stutters, the victory came with a sense of inevitability and India will travel to Bangalore knowing how tough it is to beat a team when they're on a roll. Just as Sri Lanka.
Virender Sehwag c Prince b Ntini 1 (1 for 1)
Prince dives to his left and pulls off a sensational airborne catch at backward point
Mohammad Kaif lbw b Pollock 1 (4 for 2)
Beaten by one that came in and trapped plumb
Sachin Tendulkar c Boucher b Pollock 3 (5 for 3)
Lunged at one that shaped away
Rahul Dravid b Nel 8 (34 for 4)
Beaten by one that came in and sneaked through between bat and pad
Gautam Gambhir c Boucher b Ntini 1 (35 for 5)
Flashed at a wide one
Irfan Pathan b Botha 46 (110 for 6)
Not to the pitch as he danced through the track and got an inside edge
Mahendra Singh Dhoni run-out (Nel/Boucher) 17 (159 for 7)
Fails to make his ground while going for the second
Ajit Agarkar c Kemp b Nel 21 (198 for 8)
Holed out to deep square leg
Yuvraj Singh run-out (Kallis) 103 (227 for 9)
Fails to make it back after trying to take on the fielder in the deep
AB de Villiers lbw b Agarkar 7 (32 for 1)
Missed one that jagged back a shade but it appeared to be missing leg tump
Justin Ontong c Dravid b Agarkar 11 (76 for 2)
Upper edged a wide one to first slip
Graeme Smith b RP Singh 48 (76 for 3)
Dragged a wide on back onto the stumps
Ashwell Prince c Sehwag b Harbhajan 46 (165 for 4)
Chipped straight to mid-on
Boucher c Dravid b Tendulkar 2 (168 for 5)
Swept a full toss to short midwicket
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo