India find themselves in a familiar predicament. The visiting side has stumbled into another perilous situation, where they might be bowled out for a low score. One could argue that circumstances colluded against them once more - with incessant rain at the South African coastal leaving a damp pitch in its wake and the Proteas captain winning the toss again to put India in to bat. But the strip here in Durban was no landmine like the one at Centurion. Indeed, it was actually a lack of focus and patience from most of the top and middle order that lead to their undoing.
At 183/6, the average spectator would say that India is all washed up in this innings. But Harbhajan has effected some miracles at the No 7 spot in the recent past, namely his two successive centuries against New Zealand at home. However, that was on India's dead flat-tracks which Bhajji himself condemned. Still, he struck a gritty 54 on the bouncy tracks of Australia in Nov, 2008 when he put on a valuable 80 runs with Zaheer Khan. If ever there was a time India would like to experience deja-vu, it is now!
Meanwhile, captain M S Dhoni appears to be in good touch, notching 90 against the fire and hostility of Steyn, Kallis and Morkel at Centurion. Furthermore, Bhajji possesses a batting average of over 18 while Dhoni makes nearly 41 runs per innings. So the two have a lot going for them ahead of this challenge on Day 2. They must simply be wary of not mimicking the errors that the out batsmen had fallen prey to.
Given how well opener Virender Sehwag was middling the ball at the start of the innings, he should have tempered his aggression for the sake of preserving his wicket in a crucial match. Proteas ace pacer Dale Steyn, knew he wasn't getting on top of Sehwag and so in the 11th over bowled him a sucker ball. Sehwag's eyes lit up when he saw that it was angled wide and chased it, only to see it swerve at the last moment and nick his bat through to Jacques Kallis at slip. Sehwag had simply thrown away his wicket for 25 when he promised so much more. It was an error that prompted him to lift his head at the skies in disappointment.
Steyn then succeeded to unsettle Murali Vijay with a few short balls, after which he induced him into poking at a ball around off-stump. It was that shrewd delivery that picked up an edge through to the keeper. But the biggest disappointment of the day was Sachin Tendulkar's departure for a mere 13. It was evident he had found a groove just before tea, striking some classic cover drives. But a lapse of concentration immediately after the break saw him chase a wide-ish ball from Lonwabo Tsotsobe, which found its way into Kallis' hands again.
Much was expected from Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman at that crucial juncture where India has slumped to 79/3 in 20 overs. They did half the job - stabilising the innings and guiding India past 100 while also launching a counter-offensive against Steyn. But Dravid hadn't learnt from his mistakes at Centurion and again tentatively dabbed at a ball outside off-stump which brushed his glove through the the wicketkeeper Mark Boucher.
South Africa had terminated another Indian batsman's innings for the pitiful score of 25. Laxman, who was striking the ball well, was perhaps a little unlucky that Tsotsobe plucked what initially looked like a certain four, out of thin air at midwicket. One could argue that Laxman had grown a little over-confident before he played his last stroke and had to exit for 38.
India were in a deep hole at 130/5, but newcomer Cheteshwar Pujara only partially justified his inclusion in the side. He did the groundwork to launch a decent innings, but stumbled at 19. He needlessly attempted a risky pull off Tsotsobe, only managing to get a thick top edge which Bouncer pouched without any problems.
So, all in all, India has lost the battle of wits with the South African bowlers who were able to suck them into loose, irresponsible shots. One can only hope now that the latter order save India the blushes by hitting back. An interesting day at Durban is in the offing...