Done in by the early moisture

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

Too hot to handle... Shaun Pollock (above, sending back Sachin Tendulkar) and his fellow pacemen delivered the knockout punch to India.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

THE fearsome South African pace trio of Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel made all the difference in the first of the five-match Pepsi Cup ODI series against India at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium. Exploiting the early morning moisture in the wicket, they knocked the stuffing out of the Indian camp with a dream display of aggressive bowling in the first 15 overs and put India on the mat right from the beginning.

The Indians had a much more comfortable outing against Sri Lanka, whose bowling attack was insipid despite the presence of Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan. But, the much-famed Indian batting line-up came a cropper on a pitch where the classy South Africans enjoyed bowling first. Once the fast bowling trio struck the early blows, the end-result — a five-wicket win for the visitors — was never in doubt. Pollock, Ntini and Nel bowled with fire and gave an impression there was a wicket for the asking with every ball. The body language of the South African fast bowlers was equally terrifying for the Indians.

Not for Yuvraj Singh though. Under pressure to perform after an ordinary series against Sri Lanka, Yuvraj responded in style with a superbly-paced 103 in 122 balls to help Team India post a far more respectable total than one would have expected when the hosts were tottering at 35 for five in the 12th over. Sehwag slashed Makhaya Ntini and Ashwell Prince at gully brought off a diving catch. Mohammed Kaif, trying to work Pollock on the on side, was beaten by the change in line and length. Tendulkar was surprised to be adjudged caught behind by umpire Hariharan off Shaun Pollock when the ball did not make any contact with the bat. Captain Rahul Dravid committed a rare technical error of walking into a drive only to be bowled by Andre Nel, bowling wide of the crease and slanting the ball in. The gamble of employing Gautam Gambhir as the super substitute backfired as he played an irresponsible shot very early, slashing at an away-going delivery to be caught by wicketkeeper Mark Boucher off Ntini.

The struggling Yuvraj took up the challenge in the only way he can. He played his natural game early, including a hook of Ntini for a six over fine-leg. After some anxious moments when he slashed at deliveries outside the off stump, Yuvraj got into perfect groove to come up with some stunning strokes. The way he stepped out to loft the pacers for huge sixes and used his wrists to place the ball square on either side of the wicket was typical of Yuvraj, who was named `man of the match' for his fifth one-day century.

Fortunately for the Punjab southpaw, Irfan Pathan provided him valuable support. With Irfan (46 in 63 balls) enjoying another batting stint, it was natural for Yuvraj to find the rhythm in his strokeplay. Stringing two vital partnerships, first with Pathan and then with Mahendra Singh Dhoni, he ensured that the fight-back was truly on. It was a clear error of judgement when Dhoni underestimated the strong and accurate arm of Andre Nel at square-leg in trying to complete a second run, only to be edged out in a photo-finish.

At the other end, Yuvraj deservingly completed a splendid century. His natural flair was evident even in the nineties when he walked down to loft Ntini for a six over mid-wicket. But at the death, he was also a run-out victim, trying to complete a second run after Harbhajan Singh pushed one straight down the ground. Fortunately for India, the off-spinner seemed to be in the mood to prove his batting skills with a 17-ball blitzkrieg that brought India 37 vital runs in the final three overs to push the score to 249. The two huge sixes down the ground off Ntini were stunning.

When the run chase started, the South Africans seemed to be in an unusual hurry to finish off the match — they were scheduled to leave straight from the ground after the match anyway. With captain Greame Smith looking ominous, there was deafening silence in the stands. But Ajit Agarkar provided the breakthrough once again, trapping A. B. de Villiers, trying to force on the onside. Agarkar then got Supersub Justin Ontong to play a cut only to snick the ball to Dravid at slip. At the other end, Rudra Pratap Singh struck the big blow forcing Smith to drag a wide ball on to his stumps in an attempt to play a forcing shot on the off-side. With South Africa suddenly slipping into a crisis at 76 for three, India was back in the reckoning.

But, the Indians ran into the experienced Jacques Kallis, who has the ability to bat right through the match. Kallis and left-handed Ashwell Prince (46 in 74 balls) put on 89 for the fourth wicket. Kallis's stroke selection was as usual meticulous. Just when things looked despondent for India, Harbhajan struck luring Prince into a silly on-drive straight into Sehwag's hands and in the next over Sachin got Mark Boucher to hit a full-toss straight to Rahul Dravid at mid-on. The double blow was just the oxygen the Indians badly needed.

However, the arrival of the big-hitting Justin Kemp at 168 for five in the 35th over was what the Indians would not have liked. This was a phase when the Men in Blue missed a quality fifth bowler — a slot shared by Seh0wag, Sachin and Yuvraj Singh with no big impact. It was also surprising that Rudra Pratap Singh was not called on to complete his full quota of overs.

With the well-set Kallis having things under control, Kemp was circumspect to start with. In fact, he did not attempt any big strokes for close to five overs after he came to the crease. He played an innings, which should have flabbergasted the spectators after the hype about his six-hitting spree. Kemp (46 not out in 49 balls) played as his team wished, curbing his natural instinct. For India, this is a threatening prospect in the days to come. That there were no fireworks from Kemp is another indication of his growing reputation and ability to adapt to different conditions. "It is not that easy to hit every ball for a six especially in India," he said before the match.

Kallis (68 not out in 97 balls) and Kemp guided the Proteas to what turned out to be a comfortable five-wicket win.

The only consolation for the hosts was that the match extended into the 49th over.

By all means, it was a truly professional display from the visitors who had the guts to take the risk of putting the Indians in to bat and even giving off-spinner Johan Botha the chance to enjoy the biggest challenge for any spinner in the world — bowling at the Indians on their home soil.

The scores

1st ODI, Hyderabad, November 16, 2005, South Africa won by five wickets. Man of the Match: Yuvraj Singh

India: V. Sehwag c Prince b Ntini 1, S. Tendulkar c Boucher b Pollock 2, M. Kaif lbw Pollock 1, R. Dravid b Nel 8, Yuvraj Singh (run out) 103, G. Gambhir c Boucher b Ntini 1, I. Pathan b Johan Botha 46, M. Dhoni (run out) 17, A. Agarkar c Kemp b Nel 21, Harbhajan Singh (not out) 37, R. P. Singh (not out) 1; Extras: (1-b, 3-lb, 4-w, 3-nb) 11; Total: (for nine wkts in 50 overs) 249.

Fall of wickets: 1-1, 2-4, 3-5, 4-34, 5-35, 6-110, 7-159, 8-198, 9-227.

South Africa bowling: Shaun Pollock 10-1-37-2, Ntini 10-1-62-2, Nel 10-2-45-2, Langeveldt 8-0-34-0, Botha 6-0-31-1, Kallis 6-0-36-0.

South Africa: G. Smith b R. P. Singh 48, A. B. de Villiers lbw b Agarkar 7, J. Ontong c Dravid b Agarkar 11, J. Kallis (not out) 68, A. Prince c Sehwag b Harbhajan Singh 46, M. Boucher c Dravid b Tendulkar 2, J. Kemp (not out) 46; Extras: (5-b, 13-w, 6-nb) 24. Total: (for five wkts in 48.5 overs) 252.

Fall of wickets: 1-32, 2-76, 3-76, 4-165, 5-168.

India bowling: Pathan 6-0-51-0, Agarkar 9.5-1-55-2, R. P. Singh 7-1-18-1, Harbhajan Singh 10-0-35-1, Sehwag 3-0-18-0, Tendulkar 8-0-43-1, Yuvraj Singh 5-0-27-0.

India full substitute: G. Gambhir (M. Kartik, India innings, 10.3 overs).

South Africa full substitute: J. Ontong (C. Langeveldt, South Africa innings, 0.0 overs)