Ashwell Prince and Herschelle Gibbs rallied South Africa on the opening day of the second Test against India in Durban on Tuesday after Graeme Smith won the toss and elected to bat.
The duo offered stubborn resistance as South Africa fought back after being reduced to 28 for 3 to end the day on a healthy 257 for 8, when bad light brought an early end to the proceedings.
Prince was unbeaten on 98 while Gibbs scored a fighting 63.
S Sreesanth did the bulk of the damage, capturing three wickets for 74 runs.
Fellow-paceman Zaheer bagged two wickets for 61 runs and Anil Kumble struck twice in an over late in the day to finish with 2 for 48.
A recurring nightmare for Indian cricket fans has been the team's uncanny ability to follow a great performance with a perfectly ordinary one; that feature of our cricket perhaps explains the pessimistic emails that have been flooding my mailbox over the Christmas weekend.
For once, the exception is proving the rule, as India's seamers picked up the gauntlet thrown by Graeme Smith and, at lunch, reduced the home side to 28/3 before Herschelle Gibbs (25/41) and Ashwell Prince (17/39) mounted a fightback with a 39-run partnership for the fourth wicket.
South Africa's problems began as early as the third over - and predictably, it began with Graeme Smith. His play on the day, and the mode of his dismissal, was typical of a batsman struggling for form and confidence.
As early as his first over, Smith was squared up by a trademark Zaheer Khan delivery, that landed on off and middle and straightened to square the batsman up. Khan produced a repeat in his second over, then having shaken the batsman, produced his first short ball of the innings.
Smith went for the hook, but was woefully late to change from defensive to aggressive intent; the result was a top edge that spiraled over the slip cordon. It seemed safe enough, except for Sachin Tendulkar spinning around and racing back towards the third man region, his head twisted around to keep the ball in sight as it descended over his shoulder, making a great catch out of what, when the shot was played, looked like a streaky one (5/13; SA 8/1).
Khan struck again in his fourth over; this time, the dismissal owed to the perfect delivery a left arm seamer could produce to a right-handed batsman. The ball landed on length on middle stump, held its line and then shaped in late. Hashim Amla, surprised by the late movement, fell over a bit in defense, missed the line and was nailed in front (1/9; 13/2).
While Khan was hitting the straps from ball one, Sreesanth at the other end appeared to have some difficulty controlling the initial movement. Rahul Dravid rotated the seamer out of the attack after a first spell of 4-1-16-0, then brought him on at the other end after Zaheer had completed an exceptional first spell of 6-3-5-2.
The move worked; the bowler began getting the seam back to that bolt upright position that had everyone talking in Jo'burg and with his third ball of the comeback over, nailed AB de Villiers.
The ball was bowled from very close to the stumps; the line homed in on off and seamed away very late, to find the edge on the tentative drive for Tendulkar at first slip to take his second catch of the morning (9/38; SA 28/3).
De Villiers, doing duty at the top of the order as replacement for the prodigal Herschelle Gibbs, showed every intent to stick it out there; there was, however, little conviction in his batting, and for most of his stay, his departure seemed merely a matter of time.
At the other end, VRV Singh seized his chance to prove a point or three. He had made the lineup only because Munaf Patel hasn't recovered enough for the management to gamble on; from the first ball he bowled, Singh showed that he deserved consideration in his own right.
He was especially effective against Gibbs, lining him up and beating him repeatedly outside off; to add insult to injury, on as many as three occasions he had Gibbs surprised by nasty lifters off length, that the batsman fended at and was lucky to see fall in safe ground.
Interestingly, Singh changed his style, cutting out the back of length stuff he had relied heavily on in Jo'burg, and bowling a very full length, on off or in the channel. Allied with his pace and the late movement he was able to extract, Singh immediately looked threatening; the only silver lining for the batsmen being that the bowler didn't bring anything back in off the seam, relying exclusively on the ball going away from the right hander.
Batting down the order, Gibbs began playing with an odd mixture of discretion and flash. Despite being beaten repeatedly by Singh, Sreesanth and Zaheer, Gibbs gritted it out; he even shrugged off the odd edge that, as in Singh's first over, had squirted through the infield to find the fence.
In the 17th over, he uncorked his first positive shot, gliding onto the front foot to cover for swing and blasting Sreesanth through the covers. But then, the prodigal Gibbs resurfaced, with a flash outside off later in the same over that saw the ball squirt off the edge and dangerously close to third slip.
At the other end, Ashwell Prince stuck it out, playing with a pronounced front foot movement and playing the ball as late as he possibly could; the shot of the morning had to be his square drive past point off Sreesanth in the 19th over, a shot played against a ball that was on length and seaming away late.
The two batsmen began playing with greater freedom once the initial shine had worn off, and the quantum of swing had correspondingly reduced. Gibbs in particular was quick to seize the initiative, finally getting a measure of revenge on Singh by first flicking, then cover driving, Singh for fours in successive deliveries in the 20th over, after seeing an edge fall just short of a diving Wasim Jaffar at gully at the start of that over.
Kumble replaced Sreesanth in the 21st over and straightaway hit restrictive lines. At the other end, Zaheer Khan came back for Singh, and was desperately unlucky to see umpire Mark Benson turn down a clear shout for LBW against Prince (16/32, and SA 63/3, at the time).
Overall, Graeme Smith's decision to bat first on winning the toss mirrored Dravid's similar move in the first Test. It was clearly a move aimed at seizing the initiative, and forcing the Indians to battle the pressure of batting last.
The loss of three wickets early took the fizz out of that decision, though. At lunch, South Africa was in fightback mode; it will take great application from Gibbs, Prince, Andrew Hall, Mark Boucher and Shaun Pollock to bat the home side to a position of strength from here.
That said, conditions for batting will likely be at its very best in the second session; it will, too, be a very good test for the Indian bowlers who, thus far, have had it pretty much their own way.
In conditions that did not offer much by way of swing and seam to the bowlers, India began the second session in a dangerous lethargy.
The signals began from the start, when Rahul Dravid opted to pair Zaheer Khan with Sourav Ganguly, rather than attack at both ends. Even more strangely, the field was just two slips and a gully even for Zaheer, despite the bowler bending the ball both ways and striking an impeccable length and line from the outset.
The rotation of bowlers remained inexplicable for most of the first hour, with VRV Singh taking over from Ganguly (3-1-11-0), while Sreesanth signed autographs on the boundary line. Singh had in fact bowled well in the morning session, but with the older ball doing little, was reduced to straight up and down stuff after lunch.
For South Africa, Herschelle Gibbs woke from his series-long slumber, to play in a fashion approximating to his talent. Walking away after every ball to talk to himself, studiously avoiding anything - almost anything; this, after all, is Gibbs we are talking of - outside his off stump, the demoted opener fought his way back to form and once the feet got moving, opened out with some scintillating strokes, through the covers off the front foot and through the midwicket region off his pads.
At the other end Ashwell Prince, who appears to lead a charmed life as far as LBWs are concerned (both Zaheer and Sreesanth were unlucky to have good appeals turned down inside the first hour after lunch), sat on the splice, content to keep his end up and let Gibbs do all the hard yards.
Seven fours, five of them to Gibbs, in the first eight overs after lunch; Gibbs himself stroking his way to 50 (72 balls); South Africa cruising past the 100-run mark to relieved cheers from the spectators - the momentum clearly appeared to be shifting.
When the wicket finally came, it was out of the blue - and it almost never happened. Sreesanth, coming into the attack as the fourth bowler to be tried after lunch, banged one in short; Gibbs, who had been showing signs of the fidgets after crossing the 50 mark, launched into a hook, the ball gained extra height and the batsman top edged for Dhoni to dive a long way across and hold.
Strangely, the umpire (Benson, again) didn't move a muscle, despite the clear deviation of the ball off the bat and the prolonged appeal that followed. Gibbs, much to the evident relief of the Indians, however decided against himself and walked off. His 63 off 88 (SA 122/4) balls, and 94 run partnership with Prince for the fourth wicket, scripted the fight back South Africa needed.
The wicket brought India back into the game; Kumble bowled with three round the bat while Sreesanth, with the ball not seaming around enough to look for edges, began bowling the very full, very straight line looking to pin the batsmen in front. Together, the two bowlers pegged back the SA momentum; the first five overs after Gibbs' departure produced just eight runs.
Singh then came back to bowl a hostile - and essentially unlucky - spell. In the 44th over of the innings, a peach of a delivery, landing on length and line of off before seaming away late, found Prince's edge, only to drop agonizingly short of Tendulkar at first slip (or did it come to hand? The replays were inconclusive; the fielder's agonized reaction seemed to suggest disappointment.)
An over later, Singh first tested Prince out with a good short ball, clipped Boucher on the back of the helmet with another, then produced a ball full on middle that straightened off the seam. Boucher attempted to flick, missed, and was hit on the pad in front of middle and leg - only, the umpire thought not, and the batsman survived (Boucher 16/36; SA 148/4 at the time). Typically for this game, the batsman then rubbed it in, taking two fours off Singh's next over.
At tea, South Africa had progressed to 165/4 (67/3 at lunch) in 51 overs; Boucher was batting 27/55, and Prince 47/112.
Two sessions, meanwhile, are good enough for a fair read of this wicket. Granting the weather stays as sunny as it was today, this Durban wicket is not even in the same zip code as the one on which India was famously hustled out for 100 and 66, as far as pace and bounce go.
Sure, the South Africans with their extra height and greater pace will still be a handful; the Kookaburra ball will still do things early on, for about the first twenty overs or so. With the bat, India will need to dig deep to survive that early spell.
But on balance, the team batting first needs a good 350, minimum, to justify the decision and put the opposition under pressure. India needs a couple of wickets to break the game open - and, not to be snide, but judging by the decisions given or not given, they better be of the `bowled' variety.
In Johannesburg, the fielding had provided the extra edge the bowlers needed, to scythe through the South African batting.
Here, during the early part of the final session of day one, that edge was missing. It was not like catches went down (you could at best count two real half chances in the day - one to Jaffer, the other to Tendulkar). It was, more, an absence of the buzz that the Indians had in the field in the first Test, coupled with a dilution of the aggressive edge.
After team, Zaheer Khan bowled his heart out - and should have had Boucher twice in successive overs, except that India as in the second session opted to have just two slips in place, even early in the spell.
The left arm seamer found the edge in his 14th over (the 56th of the innings), then outdid himself in the next. A well directed bouncer caught Boucher on the hop; that was followed up by the perfect sucker ball - full in length, off stump in line, leaving the bat late. Boucher bit; his push got the edge, and yet again it flashed through that vacant space behind the bat, down to the fence for four.
It was that kind of day. When Ashwell Prince tried to hook Kumble (?!), the ball ballooned, then fell perfectly between the square leg fielder running back, andfine leg running forward. It appeared that at either end, the Indians were just that fraction away from getting the job done - and meanwhile, the runs kept mounting.
For the second wicket in succession, the home team stitched together a partnership, with Boucher playing aggressor while Prince continued to sit on the splice. The left hander had brought up his 50 (116 balls, 7 fours) in the first over after tea; he continued to bat with calm sense, stroking hard only when he was absolutely sure of the ball, patting back the rest, and hanging on to his end with commendable determination.
Boucher at the other end bustled around in his crease, pushing, prodding, and occasionally clubbing the bad ball, his hyperactivity at the crease prodding bowlers into error - and Sreesanth into a temper that resulted in the umpires having a bit of a chat with him and captain Rahul Dravid.
The Boucher-Prince partnership of exactly 100 runs, in a tick under 29 overs, built on the foundation laid by the Gibbs-Prince association; as SA went past the 200 mark, it appeared to regain the initiative and Graeme Smith, in the pavilion, was seen smiling again.
Not, though, for long. Boucher got to his 53 (89 deliveries), with an edged four to third man off the right arm seamer; two deliveries later, Sreesanth responded with a near-perfect yorker that squared Boucher up and went through his attempted flick to pluck out middle stump (53/91 balls; SA 222/5).
Pollock started out calm, but then looked to open out. VRV Singh was greeted with a ferocious cut and a fierce hook in swift succession. Aggression - and the madly waving South African flags -- got the better of him; the third ball of that over was slapped from outside off, straight to Sehwag at point (11/23; SA 256/6).
It was, in the circumstances, a blunder - South Africa had India on the ropes at that point, and Pollock, with a bit more circumspection, was just the sort of batsman who could have helped the home team ram it in.
That error was magnified in the very next over. Kumble produced one of his patented top spinners, that hastened off the pitch and nailed Andrew Hall bang in front (0/4; SA 257/7). Suddenly, a very promising innings was back on the rails and, as in the first Test, it owed to some scarcely credible shot selection by the Proteas batsmen.
Andre Nel came out, and lasted one ball before another quick flipper from Kumble hurried through his defenses and onto off stump (0/2; 257/8). South Africa at that point had lost three wickets for one run, and was hurting again.
Ashwell Prince soldiered on; he required treatment for what seemed an elbow niggle, and kept shaking his arm after every ball played. But pain or no, he wasn't giving up; when the umpires offered light to the batsmen, he was battling on with 98 runs to his name off 181 deliveries, and debutant Morkel for company.
Day one, overall, belonged to India; 8 wickets back in the hut for just 257 was good going after being sent in to bowl on what is clearly a 350-plus pitch. It could have been even better, but for a few patches in play when the team seemed to go off the boil, and lose its collective focus.
The ask now will be for the bowlers to finish off the job early in the morning on day two; freeing up the batsmen, without the pressure of a mountain to climb, to try and bat South Africa out of the game.