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Middling to worse

At the Wanderers in 2003, in as big an event as the World Cup final, India's opening bowlers were pummelled for 37 off the first five overs, setting the tone for a royal bashing. Today, on the first day of a Test series with swing on offer, Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth conceded 40, in an exhibition of seam bowling that was reminiscent of the Johannesburg blackout.

By the first drink break, India were threatening to enter freefall; by lunch they realised their best fielder can grass the simplest of chances; and by tea they might well have called the met department. To have endured such a horror start and to have ended the day actually urging the umpires to play on a bit more was a small victory in itself, one which they can build on for the rest of the summer.

Starting an away series on a high has never been too much of an Indian thing, especially when it's the bowlers who need to operate the ignition. Remember Lord's 2002, Brisbane 2003? All drawn series where the bowlers took serious tap on the first day. It was left to Sourav Ganguly, referred to as "the little dobbler" by Andrew Strauss in the press conference later in the day, to provide the first breakthrough. By the end of the day RP Singh was showing his more illustrious partners how the basics work just fine and Anil Kumble was re-emphasising his ability to rekindle hope.

India will start the second day buoyed by the late strikes on the first, they'll have the new ball as an option and they would have hopefully got rid of those pesky butterflies in the stomach, the same feeling that lured Dinesh Karthik to spill a dolly. But it's time, high time, that India's new-ball bowlers awoke to the responsibility.

Zaheer has this knack of not turning up on the big days. You can't accuse him of being over-eager, neither can you say he was disinterested but it's the sort of middling performance that exasperates. The aggression was missing, so was the impact. One over he would probe away and beat the bat, the next he would be flicked and swatted too easily

Zaheer has this knack of not turning up on the big days. You can't accuse him of being over-eager, neither can you say he was uninterested but it's the sort of middling performance that exasperates. The aggression was missing, so was the impact. One over he would probe away and beat the bat, the next he would be flicked and swatted too easily. It's a classic enough-to-keep-your-place kind of performance. It's not enough from India's strike bowler. It's not to say he should have ended with a five-for but no wickets for 55 in 14 overs is neither here nor there.

Of the twelve fours in the first hour eight were in the leg-side arc between fine leg and midwicket. The four on the off were ricochets off the outside edge - Strauss nicking fortuitously past the slips on two occasions, gully on the other and Cook wafting inside the line once. Starts matter, just ask England and Steve Harmison. Rahul Dravid's 7-2 field didn't help, not with the pitch playing so flat and definitely not with the bowling ammunition he possessed. It allowed bowlers to spray it wide, allowed runs to leak. Fighting fire with fire can be hazardous at times.

Zaheer's opening partner, Sreesanth, has made a name for himself here. Actually he's being talked about because he doesn't have a "first" name. Two days back he was uttering phrases such as "every step is a dream", "I've been waiting for eight years" and "I felt so emotional when I saw the pitch", you feared he might be overawed by the occasion. The way he began, spraying the ball on the left-handers' pads as if it was a pair of right-handers on strike did nothing to dispel the notion. Six maidens either side of lunch suggested he'd wiped off those tears of emotion and his spell after tea indicated calming of the nerves but India need more from him.

RP Singh can afford to be steady - he's young and not the sort you'd expect to win you a Test, not yet at least. His brief is to keep it tight at one end, allowing India the liberty to attack from the other. He was the best bowler on view, cranking up a good pace all day and almost had Pietersen inside-edging onto the stumps at the end of the day, a wicket which would have evened it up. India's weakest link kept them afloat. Now whether that's a good thing or a bad one is anybody's guess.