After much hullabaloo, India got what they wanted -- a pitch that turned square from day 1; a surface that allegedly hadn't been watered properly so that it breaks up quickly. To further their advantage, they won the toss and batted first. If ever batting first was the only option on a pitch, this was it. India had everything going for them. And yet, the hosts could not make much use of what was a massive advantage. A meagre 201 was all they managed, giving away four wickets to part-time spinner Dean Elgar. They hit back with a couple of wickets, but South Africa still held the edge at end of day one.
India may have been rooting for spinning pitches to play to their strengths, but the first day at Mohali was the latest illustration of the fact that the move has an equally good chance of backfiring. India are no longer great players of spin, and Elgar, with no great credentials as a bowler, preyed on this weakness. Elgar began by ending a promising second wicket stand of 63 between Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara as the latter missed a straight ball to be trapped leg before. The left-arm spinner then enticed Ajinkya Rahane and Wriddhiman Saha to nick to slip off consecutive deliveries.
Elgar had his fourth scalp when the usually reliable Amit Mishra tried to take him on, but only found the fielder. It was that kind of a day for India when they played uneeded strokes and gave their wickets away on a pitch that was anyways difficult to bat on. It all began at the top, with Shikhar Dhawan, who was preferred over Lokesh Rahul and Rohit Sharma continuing to exasperate. After playing a couple of handsome defensive strokes, he nicked Vernon Philander behind in the second over of the day to earn yet another duck. Pujara and Vijay hung around for a decent amount of time, but once the stand was broken India fell apart.
Birthday boy Virat Kohli had a forgettable day, driving a ball which held itself in the pitch, and handing a simple catch. Kagiso Rabada, who troubled Kohli in the ODIs, had the Indian skipper as his first Test victim. Vijay was the only one who was comfortable out in the middle against both spin and pace. He cut when the ball was short and drove when it was pitched up. It seemed as if Vijay and the rest were batting on different surfaces. Lower down the order, Ravindra Jadeja batted well for his 38 on comeback. He looked at ease against the spinners before being trapped by the pace of Philander. Imran Tahir then ran through the tail.
With only 201 to defend, India needed to strike early. They did as Ashwin trapped Stiaan van Zyl plumb in front while Jadeja got through the defence of Faf du Plessis for a duck. Bowling hero Elgar and Hashim Amla then survived some tense moments from Ashwin and Jadeja to finish the day at 28 for 2. They would have wanted to lose fewer wickets, but would be happier of the two sides at the end of day's play. India's spinners will have to be at their very best to dislodge South Africa's batsmen irrespective of the nature of the pitch.
--By A Cricket Correspondent