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Zaheer and Harbhajan script India’s stunning fightback

S. Ram Mahesh

Dream debut for Petersen; Amla proves to be bitter for the Indians

— Photo: K.R. Deepak

TURNING IT AROUND: Harbhajan Singh, who has been under severe scrutiny, was back among the wickets on the first day at the Eden Gardens on Sunday.

KOLKATA: South Africa was a victim on the first day of the second Test to that curious phenomenon that has buried several touring sides: an irresistible surge of momentum that India seems to start from nothing.

South Africa, looking to win its second series in India, was well placed after winning the toss at the Eden Gardens on 218 for one. Alviro Petersen (100) and Hashim Amla (114) had batted their side into what seemed an impregnable position.

But then as it has so often happened, the home side did its thing. Zaheer Khan sent back both century-makers. Harbhajan Singh, under severe scrutiny, struck thrice.

India, charged with the mysterious energy a home crowd generates, reduced South Africa to 266 for nine by stumps, ensuring it stayed alive in the series.

Superb delivery

It was a magnificent day of cricket made by possible by a pitch that offered enough by way of bounce. Zaheer continued his hold on Graeme Smith, detonating the left-handers off-stump with a delivery that cut in wickedly off the seam.

But although they found swing with the new ball — Zaheer more so than Ishant Sharma — the Indian fast bowlers couldn’t manage the consistency that is necessary at this level.

Petersen and Amla made capital, putting on an exhibition of ball-striking. Petersen, who was drafted into the eleven after Mark Boucher’s back strain worsened, looked remarkably assured for a debutant.

Late bloomer

A late bloomer, the 29-year-old batted at a level not common to those who average 37 in first-class cricket. His defence was secure, often classical; his stroke-play approached the sublime.

Petersen has wonderful hands as a batsman, and he used them in different ways on Sunday. To deliveries of three-quarter length and fuller, and directed at middle and leg, he broke his wrists to both accelerate the bat and place the ball everywhere between fine-leg and deep mid-wicket.

At other times, in strokes as diverse as the cover-drive on the up and the pull against the seamers, Petersen froze his wrists at impact. The effect was spectacular: he seemed to persuade the ball to the boundary; one pull off Zaheer was no more than a caress. Petersen also cut thrillingly off his stumps against Amit Mishra.

Amla’s was a schizophrenic innings. When he was good — and he was for much of his stay — he looked every bit the batsman who made an unbeaten 253 in his last visit to the crease. The driving through the off-side, a feature of any Amla innings of reasonable duration, was exquisite. As was his play on the leg-side — he often took the ball off the line of off-stump and turned it to the on-side.

But Amla also gave India’s bowlers a chance. At least twice he was late on deliveries, and the inside edge just eluded the stumps. On 60, he edged Harbhajan to V.V.S. Laxman at slip. Normally a safe catcher, Laxman made a meal of the chance.

Petersen, at the other end, survived close shouts for leg-before on 47, 49, and 92. The inconsistent Mishra was the unlucky bowler twice.

Ishant’s hot spell

Just as it seemed India would suffer a repeat of what happened in Nagpur, things turned. Ishant bowled a nasty four-over spell in the middle-session, where he harassed Amla with the short ball. He may have been guilty of over-doing it, and not springing the trap of the full ball, but the spell seemed to enliven the Indians.

Zaheer, who replaced Ishant, had Petersen caught behind off a length delivery slanted across the right-hander. The ball wasn’t there for the drive.

The session after tea was dramatic. Amla tried to pull Zaheer, but the ball got big on him and he could only touch it to M.S. Dhoni. The angle of the delivery from left-arm over didn’t help the stroke either.

Poor stroke

Then a third ill-judged stroke cost South Africa: Jacques Kallis aimed a sweep at Harbhajan, the over-spin on the delivery provoked a top-edge and Laxman ran from slip to almost short fine-leg and judged the ball into his palms from over his shoulder.

It was a marvellous catch — not only did it make amends for an earlier miss, it eased Harbhajan’s anxiety.

A wicket to his name and fresh, unsettled batsmen to bowl at, Harbhajan created havoc. Ashwell Prince and J.P. Duminy were pinned in front of their stumps, and the off-spinner had 350 Test wickets.

Zaheer ran A.B. de Villiers out with a splendid turn-and-throw routine before Ishant and Mishra took their first wickets of the series. South Africa’s last pair took the umpires offer of light, ending a session of 25 overs that saw 38 runs and seven wickets.

SCOREBOARD

South Africa — 1st innings: G. Smith b Zaheer 4 (12b, 1x4), A. Petersen c Dhoni b Zaheer 100 (164b, 16x4), H. Amla c Dhoni b Zaheer 114 (166b, 14x4, 1x6), J. Kallis c Laxman b Harbhajan 10 (26b, 1x4), A.B. de Villiers (run out) 12 (37b, 2x4), A. Prince lbw b Harbhajan 1 (8b), J.P. Duminy lbw b Harbhajan 0 (1b), D. Steyn lbw b Mishra 5 (37b), P. Harris c Dhoni b Ishant 1 (4b), W. Parnell (batting) 2 (21b), M. Morkel (batting) 3 (19b); Extras (b-1, lb-4, nb-9): 14; Total (for nine wkts. in 81 overs): 266.

Fall of wickets: 1-9 (Smith), 2-218 (Petersen), 3-229 (Amla), 4-251 (Kallis), 5-253 (Prince), 6-253 (Duminy), 7-254 (de Villiers), 8-255 (Harris), 9-261 (Steyn).

India bowling: Zaheer 21-5-77-3, Ishant 17-3-56-1, Mishra 20-3-68-1, Harbhajan 23-2-60-3.

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