Indian bowlers hold sway

Sreesanth and Zaheer combined well as a right-left new ball pair. The pressure was maintained from both ends. The South Africans succumbed. India made history. S. Dinakar reports.

Making history is never easy. The Indians, battered and bruised in the ODI series, accomplished just that at one of the most spectacular venues of the cricketing world.

India's spirit-lifting win at the Wanderers, the country's first Test victory on South African soil, was a tale of courage if not anything else.

Here were a bunch of accomplished cricketers, their pride dented, fighting two battles, one within themselves, one against the opposition.

They had to conquer the demon of self-doubt. Then, they had to meet the South African challenge. It was a daunting ask.

And then, they turned it around big time. It was all over with minutes to go for lunch on day four. A jubilant Virender Sehwag swooped in on Mkhaya Ntini's miscued hit off Zaheer Khan and the Indians were celebrating.

At the Wanderers, amidst a sea of emotions, India clinched the first Castle Test by 123 runs. The sun shone on the Indians, even if it rained shortly afterwards.

Amidst the moments of joy, there was also an awareness that the side could not rest on its laurels. Two more Tests remained and the series was not won yet. A wounded South Africa could rebound.

"We would hit the ground running hard at Durban (the venue for the second Test)," said Dravid. The job was still unfinished. Yet, there had been a remarkable turnaround in the Indian fortunes.

India had underperformed in the one-dayers this season. The side had lost direction, was going nowhere.

The mauling in the one-day series had left the team with little support, even from those who knew the side well. The voices of discontent were getting louder.

"They are experienced batsmen. They have played all over the world. I can't understand why they have not been performing on the tour," wondered Indian selection panel chief Dilip Vengsarkar, soon after he landed in South Africa.

The victory over Rest of South Africa in the tour game at Potchefstroom had been a shaft of light amid much darkness for the Indians. But then, the South African team would be a different proposition.

If the Indians sought inspiration, it came from a man who spent 10 months in the wilderness. Sourav Ganguly's innings in Potchefstroom, when much of the Indian batting had been ravaged by Morne Morkel, was, in several senses, an influential effort.

Here was someone, struck a sickening blow above his ear by a lifting delivery, showing true grit in his first game for India after what seemed an eternity. That effort had a trigger effect. It made the others look at themselves.

Adversity is often the genesis of great comebacks. Pushed against the wall, the Indians took the braver option — they fought back. An epic win was scripted.

The side showed resilience with the bat — critical partnerships were constructed — bowled in the right areas and clung on to catches. The Indians were aggressive, made things happen. They were not lacking in the end game skills either.

South African captain Graeme Smith summed it up thus "they (the Indians) were hungrier than us."

The senior South African cricketers had chilled out during the long 12-day break between the final one-dayer and the first Test. They had been permitted by the selection panel to skip domestic cricket. Graeme Smith and his men turned complacent, they paid the price.

Smith should have listened to his counterpart on the eve of the Test. Rahul Dravid had warned, "When I look around the dressing room, I see quality players. It would be dangerous to write us off."

In the event, the South African weaknesses were exposed — an out-of-form top-order, a rather one-dimensional pace attack, and a tendency to crumble under pressure.

The Wanderers pitch had bounce and movement, and played quicker too from the second day. It, normally, was not the kind of pitch where you would give the Indians a chance. However, this side had been performing better abroad in Tests since 2000.

In the welter of Indian setbacks in the ODIs, it had been forgotten that India actually won its last Test series, in the Caribbean this year, 1-0. Dravid reminded some of this fact ahead of the Test. There were not too many believers.

The skipper set a glorious example himself. His fractured right middle-finger had not fully healed, but Dravid called it "operational." He later revealed, "I had told the doctor when he saw the injury for the first time that I wanted to play the first Test."

India, eventually, ended its luckless run with the toss and Dravid decided to bat. "It was my call," he would say after the game.

The Indian top-order was brushed aside by the South Africans, but it was still evident that the South African pacemen, spearhead Ntini in particular, were not bowling the right length. They had to pitch the Kookaburra ball up and give it a chance to swing.

The South Africans blundered by playing Dale Steyn, when he had still not recovered fully from strained quadriceps. The fast bowler could not bowl full clip, had to pull out after 10.1 unimpressive overs. He played no further part in the match.

The pitch was hard and sported cracks. There was a feeling that the fissures could widen under the burning heat in Johannesburg. This prompted the curator to put wet hessian on the surface and then cover the pitch on the eve of the Test. Apart from slowing down the wicket slightly, this also delayed the start by 90 minutes.

The South African bowlers, with the exception of the outstanding Shaun Pollock, lost the plot; they either attacked the body of the Indian batsmen with short-pitched bowling, or bowled the one-day length, which is just short of a good length, not allowing the batsmen to venture into the front-footed drives.

But then, the Kookaburra ball assists swing early, and the batsmen had to be lured into the drive, probed in the corridor. "We needed to get more wickets when the ball was new and hard," admitted Smith.

The Indian first innings total of 249 was a potential match-winning score on this wicket. Dravid's men sniffed at an unlikely win.

The skipper had set an example himself. His 32, an innings when he took blows on the body, risked further injury to his finger, did send a strong message to his men — they had to stay put and fight.

Sachin Tendulkar's 44 was an innings of sweetly timed drives, but Ganguly produced the effort of the innings (51 not out, 101b, 4x4, 1x6). While the left-hander's defence appeared secure, he played closer to his body around the off-stump.

When the South Africans, predictably, bounced at him, Ganguly hooked and pulled. Smith said later, "He had been away from international cricket for sometime. We knew he would give nothing away easily."

Said Ganguly, "I had been here before. I had a picture in my mind about the kind of surfaces here, about how they would bowl at me and the technical adjustments I had to make."

Importantly, Ganguly rallied with the tail. His 44-run last wicket-stand with the big-hitting V. R. V. Singh (29, 19b, 6x4) was a significant association. "It made a huge difference, a score around 200 and then nearly 250," said Smith. Dravid too called the partnerships a critical phase of the contest after India had lost quick wickets on day two.

"He (Ganguly) is batting well," acknowledged Dravid. Ganguly said, "If you pick the right team, you would get the right results."

The Indians, probably, had adequate runs on the board. However, a largely inexperienced pace attack would be bowling at a set of batsmen familiar with the conditions.

Santhakumaran Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan moved the ball around, pitched the ball up and as a pleased captain Dravid pointed out "hit the right areas."

The South African batsmen appeared rusty. The top-order was blown away in no time — Smith, Gibbs and Amla are under increasing scrutiny — and there was not much resistance from the middle-order either.

A score of 84, in just 25.1 overs, represented a new low for the South African batting; this was also the nation's lowest score against India. Sreesanth had cut like a knife in an incisive spell of controlled swing that read 10-3-40-5.

Sreesanth and Zaheer combined well as a right-left new ball pair. The pressure was maintained from both ends. The South Africans succumbed.

Dravid motivated his bowlers, and his field placements were spot on. He was a skipper in control.

India, with a massive lead of 165 on a pitch of inconsistent bounce, had South Africa on the mat. But the visitors still required to put the match out of the home team's reach. It was the turn of another senior batsman to contribute.

V.V.S. Laxman celebrated his elevation as India vice-captain with an innings of flair and substance. His 73 (154b, 12x4) contained pristine strokes in the `V'. The 70-run eighth-wicket partnership between Laxman and Zaheer (37), who applied himself, effectively batted South Africa out the contest.

A target of 402 was unlikely to be reached and history too was against the South Africans. The highest successfully chased fourth innings Test score at the Wanderers was 292.

Sreesanth and Zaheer once again struck with the new ball. A few loose shots also helped the Indian cause. "We let ourselves down," said Smith. The three top names — Smith, Gibbs and Kallis — contributed little in the match.

On the decisive fourth day, champion leg-spinner Anil Kumble bowled magnificently. However, the left-handed Ashwell Prince's defiant 97 (223b, 11x4) showed the virtues of application and judicious stroke selection. Pollock — he had earlier become the first South African to reach 400 Test wickets — delivered a few languid blows with the willow, but India was always going to win this.

It was a famous victory at the Wanderers.