The Indian team arrived in South Africa full of confidence and the backing from stars of the previous era as well as pundits of the game.
In the past there were two worries for the Indians: One, not enough firepower to hustle the South African batsmen, and two, the technical ineptitude of the batsmen to stand up to pace.
The first day’s play in the new series has shown that the Indian pacemen are on track even though they failed to press home the advantage after Bhuvaneshwar Kumar removed the three top-order batsmen even before they could get their eye in.
All that the fast bowlers now need is to be consistent with their line and length. They would have realised what they did wrong and the bowling coach would have taken them to task for conceding cheap runs by way of far too many boundary balls.
In shuffling the fast bowlers, Virat Kohli forgot that he has a spinner, too, in the playing 11. It is not in hindsight that one brings Ravichandran Ashwin into the discussion after he took the last two wickets to prevent the South Africans from getting to a 300-plus total to feel psychologically a lot better.
When a team plays with four fast bowlers, it is possible to get tempted to use them in rotation in helpful seaming conditions. Of the four, young Hardika Pandya is still trying to make his position secure as an all-rounder and the other, Jasprit Bumrah, is making his debut with a reputation of overstepping the line at critical times.
When Bhuvneshwar, Mohammad Shami, Bumrah and Pandya had decent spells and all of them got wickets, you can find fault with the captain. Yet, it is perplexing to find Ashwin being used barely for seven overs after being ignored for a good two sessions.
If the Indian team management can take heart from the fact that it got South Africa out for 286 runs on a pitch where Faf Du Plessis decided to bat first when everyone thought the skipper winning the toss might prefer to bowl to use the lively conditions, what happened in the handful of overs the way their top-order batted may not have pleased it at all.
It was a startling start by India, if not all that surprising after seeing how the top-order of the home team fared against the new ball. They lost their three top-order batsmen for almost nothing, two of these, Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli, are proven stroke-makers and the third Murali Vijay is known for his monumental patience, and one who knows where the off-stump is.
The other batsman who can hold the innings is Cheteshwar Pujara and he saw through the first session on the second day, but the task was too much for the middle-order batsmen to stand up to the constant pressure of dealing with Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Kagiso Rabada.
Only the devil-may-care Pandya freely played his shots to take the India total past the hundred-mark with the tail in support. He is doing exactly what A.B. de Villiers did when he came in with his team tottering at 12 for three.
De Villers showed the other batsmen that there is no devil in the pitch or in the bowling by cracking 17 runs, including four fours in one Bhuvneshwar over. Pandya showed similar belligerence by hitting fours freely.
Pandya’s knock of 93 is remarkably creditworthy as he is facing the four top pacemen of the world to bring the Indian team back in the Test to fight it out.
Now it is easy to have a Didn’t-I-Say-So look on some faces after the batting debacle, one look at the team compositions and their record says something different. Most of the players in the team have played in South Africa in the past and some even with Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and V.V.S Laxman. They did well to win a Test and came close to winning a series, too.
It is debatable whether Alan Donald, Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini were superior to the present lot. The Indian batsmen have also done as well as their predecessors and the present lot of their fast bowlers are as good as Zaheer Khan and Shantakumaran Sreesanth and Ishant Sharma, who is not playing in the New Lands Test this time.
The problem with a three-Test series is coming back losing the first Test. Seeing how the team bounced back on the last two tours, the players can keep their chins up.