Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Can Proteas fix the chaos?
Cape Town – It will go down as one of the most bizarre first-innings scoreboards you will see in Test cricket.
The seasoned captain and opening batsman out in a blink, a massively restorative 200-plus second-wicket partnership featuring a century-maker on his emergency debut … and then all-fall-down carnage in the final session of the first day’s play.
Net outcome was fielding team India holding the second-Test aces rather ominously against South Africa after the topsy-turvy events at Eden Gardens in a hazy Kolkata on Sunday.
From the promising buds of a 450-plus total - and thus very likely shut-out of the series in their favour - the Proteas crumbled like a biscuit beneath a child’s clumsy foot.
When failing light forced an early close and the pumped-up Indians indicated their wish to take the new ball, South Africa had subsided nightmarishly to 266 for nine, all thanks to a 25-over spell after tea when seven wickets tumbled for the addition of only 38 runs.
From a Proteas point of view, you would love to be able to take comfort in the possibility that the pitch was beginning to play tricks and that perhaps the proverbial “runs already on the board” may turn out to be more meaningful than they presently appear.
The more worrying truth is that a strong element of self-destruction accompanied the rot: maybe the 209-run alliance between the awesomely in-form Hashim Amla and rookie Alviro Petersen at a breezy four to the over was a better indicator of how the surface is playing early in the crucial encounter?
Few of the batsmen in the sudden procession could truly be said to have succumbed to bamboozlement: Amla fell to a rash attempt at a stroke he so rarely plays – the pull – while Jacques Kallis, his partner in torment for the home side at Nagpur, skied a slog-sweep off Harbhajan Singh unusually early in his own innings.
And for JP Duminy, his paucity of runs is starting to take on Southern Cape drought proportions: he played down the wrong line to be leg before wicket to the cock-a-hoop Harbhajan for a golden duck.
It was the fourth time in as many Test matches this summer that he has been dismissed by an off-spinner and fifth in six – England’s Graeme Swann indisputably had his number in the shared series a few weeks ago.
Then what of AB de Villiers? Amidst the bedlam, his being run out for 12 while backing up too far was a bit like bombing a runaway veld fire with bucket-loads of braai Blitz … no help at all.
He is another player whose season in Test cricket has been notably below his best: impetuosity has too often accounted for him and he boasts a highest score of 64 in his sixth game of 2009/10, ordinary for a gifted player wishing to be the world’s best with the blade.
What weirdly mixed feelings Petersen – who only played because of Mark Boucher’s lingering back injury, with De Villiers required to keep wicket - would have had in the dressing room at the close: own jubilation at achieving a three-figure score on debut, yet part of team despondency, no doubt, over the nasty nosedive.
Clearly one of those cricketers who get better and more resolute with age, the 29-year-old earned the distinction of becoming the 89th instance, and 87th different player, of someone registering a century in maiden Test appearance.
There are two players, even more remarkably, to have earned successive “tons” in their debut Test – Lawrence Rowe (214 and 100 not out) for West Indies against New Zealand at Kingston in 1972, and Pakistan’s Yasir Hameed (170 and 105) against Bangladesh at Karachi in 2003.
The cool-headed Petersen is the third player to achieve that debut landmark for South Africa (after Andrew Hudson and Jacques Rudolph) and the sixth SA-born one: Kepler Wessels, presently the Proteas’ batting mentor, cracked 162 for Australia against England at Brisbane in 1982, while Matt Prior and Jonathan Trott have subsequently managed the feat for England.
Can South Africa wriggle pluckily out of this near-mess? Of course they can, the dream scenario being last pair Morne Morkel and Wayne Parnell somehow nudging the Proteas rather closer to the satisfaction of the 300-mark, and then Dale Steyn, perhaps, carrying his rampant Nagpur strike-bowling form into Kolkata in a sea of red mist and Paul Harris bottling up the other end effectively.
Such nirvana, though, doesn’t happen every day.
Ravi Shastri noted in television commentary that days two and three may be the kindest for batting, and India are fortified by the return of experienced VVS Laxman, who boasts a Test average of 81 in this populous city where a vast crowd will egg their heroes on, you can be sure, in their reply innings.
The Proteas may be required to claw rather than romp their way back into this one, but it is not beyond them to do so …