Vijay approaching century as India finish Day 1 in strong position

Bad light cut short the first day of second India v South Africa Test, but before that India started out to 181 for 1 thanks to Murali Vijay's unbeaten 91.

Murali Vijay celebrates his half century on Thursday. Anesh Debiky / AFP
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A third of the first day’s play at Durban was lost to bad light, but what cricket was possible was dominated entirely by India. With the first Test at the Wanderers being drawn in dramatic fashion, the risk of an anticlimax was very much on the cards in the second, and final Test, which took on the garb of decider. India, who won the toss, cruised to 181 for 1 on Thursday when the players were forced off the park at 3.35 pm, never to return on the day.

At his pre-match press conference, Graeme Smith had said that the pitch at Kingsmead was not the easiest one to read accurately and that atmospheric conditions came into play in a big way at the ground. Russell Domingo, South Africa’s coach, went a step further. “The pitch here looks pretty dry and it is probably not what we were expecting,” said Domingo. “I am guessing the pitch will be a lot slower than we are accustomed to. So, I am not sure the conditions will really benefit us.”

Domingo was dead right in that there was little pace in the pitch for the bowlers to work with. What there was, however, was just enough grip to allow the quick bowlers to get the ball to straighten from time to time or stop and come through to the batsman. Morne Morkel, who staged a remarkable recovery from a badly turned ankle, was the most threatening of the bowlers on display, generating good heat even from a much shortened run up.

Dale Steyn’s dry spell from the Wanderers Test was extended by 16 overs, but he too did his best to overcome a distinctly un-South African surface in an energetic spell shortly after the tea break. Coming around the stumps to two set batsmen, Steyn bent his back and put in enough effort to ensure that the runs dried up. If anything, Steyn was at his best when the players walked off, but by then India had laid a solid foundation.

When the first ball of the day was bowled, it was hot and humid, and Jacques Kallis had led his team out to the middle in his last Test match. Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay began comfortably enough, putting on 41 with the ball not beating the bat nearly as often as it had done in the first Test. Dhawan (29) then poked at Morkel, edging to third slip and giving the home team their only happy moment of the day.

Vijay, who had done all the hard work of seeing the new ball off but fell soon after at the Wanderers, ensured that he did not repeat the mistake. South Africa, who had replaced the attacking Imran Tahir with the more controlled Robin Peterson, brought the spinner on before lunch, and this certainly helped India’s cause. Vijay was perfectly comfortable whipping the ball through midwicket, against the turn, once he had measure of the pitch.

The lack of pace in the pitch meant that Cheteshwar Pujara too took no time to settle down. The short square boundary was attacked whenever the ball was on the pads – which was more often than Allan Donald, South Africa’s bowling coach, would have liked. The number of times both Pujara and Vijay rolled their wrists and sent the ball racing to the square leg fence told you all you needed to know about the state of play and the mood in the bowling group.

Vijay brought up his half-century off 102 balls, and Pujara, who did not have to face the new ball, got to the mark in five fewer deliveries. The partnership for the second wicket had swollen to 140, and Vijay was on the verge of his first century outside India, when the umpires took the players off the field. Vijay’s flow had been choked somewhat by Steyn bowling short and into his ribcage from around the stumps, but he had still managed to get to 91 in good time. Pujara, who had bedded down for a long one, was on 58.

India were in a strong position, and given South Africa’s recent history at Kingsmead, will know that they need to press on and put a big score on the board in the first innings. A total in excess of 450 would be needed to allow Ravindra Jadeja, who came into the eleven in place of Ravichandran Ashwin, to do his thing.