When Steyn bowls with his tail up, no pitch is too flat – and the Wanderers surface had more live grass, and, as a result, carry and lateral movement than in any recent match played here – and no batsman is man enough to choose attack over defence. Even the great Viv Richards would have thought twice about taking the attack to Steyn when he was in the middle of the kind of spell he delivered on Thursday (December 5).
Rohit Sharma did the smart thing, playing at Steyn only when all other options were ruled out. If the ball was outside the off, as it was repeatedly, he left it alone, for late away swing at 145 kmh and more is not something you play by guesswork. It took 16 balls for Rohit to as much as lay bat on ball against Steyn and the first runs off Steyn came off a leading edge. Even figures of 4-2-5-0 do not accurately convey just how unplayable he was on a cool evening in Johannesburg.
With Shikhar Dhawan being accounted for by a sharp bouncer from Morne Morkel that was skied to the wicketkeeper, Rohit settled down a touch, and picked off consecutive punchy boundaries off Steyn. Virat Kohli, dropped early by de Kock, decided to make the most of any non-Steyn overs and counterattacked without being rash. But just when Kohli was looking good, he got a peach from Ryan McLaren and edged to slip.
With the master of the ODI chase gone for only 31, Yuvraj Singh was welcomed to the crease by a nasty bouncer that climbed sharply and thudded into the gloves. The next ball was full and shaping in, and Yuvraj’s attempt to work the ball to leg proved fatal as the ball clipped the top of the middle stump.
Rohit, who had crawled to 18 from 43 balls, was beckoned for a non-existent single by Suresh Raina and the direct hit from David Miller reduced India to 65 for 4 and ended the game as a contest.
Dhoni battled to 65, whittling down the margin of defeat, but the job at hand was too much even for a man of his self-belief and India slumped to 217 all out.
Leading into the first ODI, de Villiers made light of the fact that South Africa had not topped 300 a single time in 2013, adding that he did not expect conditions that would allow for such free batting in this series. India’s bowlers, failing spectacularly at the death once more, proved de Villiers wrong, not merely conceding 300, but going well beyond.
The odd couple of Amla and De Kock set the stage. Amla, batting with maturity befitting his long beard, summed up the conditions and the dangers, if any, in the opposition bowling early on and settled into his rhythm. At the other end, the man-child who Russell Domingo, South Africa’s coach, referred to as “the wild thing”, attacked mercilessly.
South Africa wanted a good start, but even it would not have anticipated putting 152 on the board before the first wicket fell when Amla (65) edged Mohammed Shami on to his stumps. If the foundation was solid, what was built on it was spectacular.
De Kock cleared his front leg and clouted over fine leg whenever he felt the need to release the pressure and otherwise carved the ball into the gaps, reaching his first century on home soil almost untroubled. When he fell, flooring the accelerator to reach 135 off only 121, he had more than done his job.
It certainly helped that there were no slouches around de Kock to pull down the strike rate. De Villiers appeared sedate for a time, because of the fireworks at the other end, but when he was done, his 77 runs had come at a strike rate of nearly 164. Duminy provided the perfect example of sweating in practice to avoid bleeding in battle. On the day before the game, Duminy was fed a series of length deliveries by the coach, most of which disappeared into the car park. But what India’s bowlers dished out was even less threatening than the simulation, and Duminy ended unbeaten with five sixes and two fours in a 29-ball 59.
India has struggled with their death bowling on the flat pitches of the subcontinent, and there was no change in Johannesburg as the last ten overs cost 135 runs and the last five went for 84 runs.
South Africa was fully aware that India had chased down big scores with some ease in the recent past, and would not have thought the game was won at the halfway stage. But, it also knew full well that none of those chases had come against an attack that included Steyn.