It was Dale Steyn’s ninth over on a sunny Boxing Day at Kingsmead. He had already conceded 36 runs in his previous eight. Two among those were maidens. The South African pacer, though, had also been hit for six boundaries—all convincing and all off the middle of the bat. He had been driven, flicked and also flayed through the covers on one occasion. There had been boundaries hit in both of his opening two overs.
More importantly, Steyn hadn’t beaten the bat even once. The Indians were yet again right on top of him.
The first ball of his ninth was a length delivery pushed into the covers by Cheteshwar Pujara. The second was driven back to him. Steyn picked up the ball and back-flicked it indignantly towards the midwicket fielder. The next delivery, a fuller one, was once more tapped straight back towards the bowler. This time, the 30-year-old fast bowler didn’t even bother to bend down. He simply kicked it away with contempt.
The final delivery of the over was over-pitched and right on Pujara’s pads inviting the Saurashtra right-hander to play a delectable on-drive. Steyn turned around immediately, snatched his cap from the umpire and was away, his shoulders sagging. No menacing stares. No staying put in his follow through.
Here was a frustrated man. Here was a premier pacer nearly reduced to his knees. Here was Steyn, that destroyer of batting line-ups, now having gone 60 overs without taking a wicket — his last one that of Shikhar Dhawan on the first morning at the Wanderers. A significantly prolonged vigil without a scalp for any bowler. Nothing short of an eternity for someone with a strike-rate of Steyn—he was taking a wicket every 41.4 balls before the Wanderers Test.
By the end of Day One here — brought to a premature close due to bad light— that draught would stretch to 68 overs. And while Steyn completed another day on the field with nothing to show for it, Murali Vijay and Pujara ensured that India, who finished the day on 181/1, came away with all the bragging rights yet again.
At the Wanderers, it was Pujara and Virat Kohli who had been Steyn’s scourges. They dominated him to such an extent that by the end of it, he had raked up figures of 0/104, the worst ever in his illustrious career. Here, Pujara was at it again. This time with Vijay, who finished the day unbeaten on 91, for company. Dhawan did deal a bit of pain himself in the early going with a couple of fiercely hit boundaries. But a majority of the damage though was done by his right-handed opening partner.
If Vijay was a symbol of resistance and dogged defence in Jo’burg, he seemed slightly more of an extrovert at Kingsmead. The line bowled to him by the South Africans was a different one. In the first Test, he had tired them out by leaving anything outside his off-stump with discipline. Here, they bowled a lot straighter to him and probably a tad fuller too. And the classy bat made the most of it.
Like Pujara’s trademark square-cut, Vijay employs the elegant push back down the ground. It’s not quite a drive; more like a check-shot but one that when connected goes flying to the fence. He began the day with one such shot off Steyn. Then he was away.
While Steyn caused little issue to the Indian batsmen, Vernon Philander did start off well with the new-ball. He got the ball to seam around briefly, but by now the Indian batsmen seemed to have gotten immune to his testing line. They shouldered arms with more confidence, frustrating Philander even further and forcing him to probe for potential wickets in other areas. It only provided the visitors with more scoring options, Vijay in particular.
Philander was tiring too, and Vijay hit him for two boundaries in his ninth over. The first was a drive on the up, before he dished out an eye-popping cover-drive off the backfoot, riding the bounce with ease. Those boundaries took Vijay past the 40-run mark. By now, he was in command. Two overs later it was Steyn who suffered as Vijay leaned into a full delivery and thrashed it through the off-side.
At the other end, Pujara was doing what he does best, grinding the South African bowling attack, one piece at a time. He was steadfast in his defence, but also punishing off every ball that drifted onto his pads — especially against Steyn. As the partnership progressed and scurried past 100, SA were only waiting for a wicket without any conviction.
Steyn returned for his final spell off the day just before the tea-break. By now the ball was scuffed up, and there was reverse swing in the air. He did get a couple to tail in late but Vijay was adept at getting into line. Next over, he switched to around the wicket, with two men catching behind square on the leg side. He had resorted to a bodyline-tactic. But his bouncers only seemed to be taking more out of him than pose any inconvenience to the Indians.
He no longer looked like a fast bowler who was poised to roll over India by simply ‘turning up’ — to borrow a quote from Zaheer Khan. Instead he looked like a millionaire suddenly reduced to fighting for a square-meal. His bowling only seemed to mirror the desperation.