A promising battle on Day One at Kingsmead was cut short by bad light. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a riveting two-over contest between two Indian rookies and the paramount fast bowler in the world. The series where India were supposed to blown away is far from being a one-way contest now.
You do not come across such contests every day: a fast bowler sending down cannonballs from around the stumps with a leg-gully, a forward short-leg, a backward square-leg, and a deep fine-leg at two young batsmen; and the youngsters keeping him at bay in fading light.
Playing South Africa at their den can be intimidating enough. Their fast bowlers have been consistently getting oppositions out for sub-fifty scores over the past two years. They are the top side in the world, are almost unbeatable at home, and their fast bowlers have had a significant role in their success story.
The sight of Dale Steyn steaming in is enough to send shivers down the spines of most batsmen irrespective of their stature and experience. Of the two youngsters one has been doing the waves for having the highest batting average after Don Bradman; the other has been trying to disprove the armchair critics of his ability to encounter short-pitched bowling.
Cheteshwar Pujara started to fight back by taking his right hand off the handle to one that shot from a good length and letting the 140 kph ball hit on his right glove. He blocked the next delivery off the back-foot, and dropped another snorter to his feet. He had survived the over with confidence.
Graeme Smith then summoned Morne Morkel from the other end; Murali Vijay survived the over and, rather bravely, took a single off the last ball. Could he now keep Steyn with a technique that has been criticised by many?
Steyn steamed in. He knew that the light was deteriorating, and he would not have to bowl for long. He decided to give it the full throttle. The first ball came at Vijay’s ribs, and he defended it confidently off his back-foot towards short-leg; the next one was relatively innocuous and Vijay flicked it with ease.
The great fast bowler ran in; the third ball spat up from a length at a menacing pace, but Vijay kept it out once again. He never took his eyes off the ball, brought his body behind every ball, and always got on top of the ball. The man who had been classified as an IPL specialist was determined to make a mark in the bigger arena.
The fourth ball was slightly towards the off, and Vijay patiently defended it yet again. The next ball tested Vijay again: it pitched at a length and moved across him as hedropped his gloves and let it go. He was determined not to chase the ball; he would not let his bat anywhere near the ball unless it was a rank loose ball.
The last ball was yet another Steyn special – a lot similar to the previous one; it darted across Vijay, who dropped his wrists yet again and went out of the line. Not only had he survived a brutal over of furious short-pitched bowling from a champion, he had also managed to dominate Steyn — a tale few batsmen have survived to tell.
With a pulsating contest on the cards the umpires decided to call play off due to fading light. However, during the brief phase before the break, Pujara and Vijay have been able to put up a display few young Indians have been able to: they have managed to play quality fast bowling overseas.
The earlier generation of Indian batsmen had produced several names that would perhaps make it to their all-time XI. However, the current crop has already displayed that they have the mettle to look at fast bowlers in their eyes. Virat Kohli had already shown what he is capable of under testing conditions. And now, this.
Only time will tell whether the young guns have the class required to make it big over an extended period of time; what cannot be denied, however, is the fact that they do have the courage and attitude to take it to the opposition. They might come second in a battle, but they would certainly not give up a battle before it had started.
India might still end up losing this series, but the outcome would certainly not be dependent on a lack of intent or mindset. They are a generation that would look at the opposition in the eye despite the current top six having played only 65 Tests between themselves.
The outcomes haven’t changed yet. But the attitude certainly has: series would not be lost before they begin.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)