With Morne Morkel a magnificent spearhead the Castle Lager Proteas found a useful ally in early reverse swing to bowl India out for 215 on the opening day of the third Freedom Series Test match at Nagpur on Wednesday.

Morne Morkel picked up 3 for 35 as South Africa dimissed India for 215.  (Photo by Duif du Toit/Gallo Images)

Morne Morkel picked up 3 for 35 as South Africa dimissed India for 215. (Photo by Duif du Toit/Gallo Images)

By the close the Proteas had replied with 11/2 although that total is not quite as bad as it looks with the second wicket being that of night watchman, Imran Tahir.

In spite of losing the toss for the third time in the series the Proteas had the better of the play for substantial periods of three day, taking 4/64 in the middle session and 4/66 in the final session. What will have disappointed them is that they allowed India to recover from 125/6 and add a further 90 runs for the last four wickets.

The big worry for the Proteas is that Morkel limped off the field after bowling the first ball of his fourth spell during the final session of play and, apart from the cloud it leaves hanging over his further participation in the game, it was undoubtedly a contributor to the recovery of the Indian lower-order, led by the partnership of 48 for the seventh wicket between Wriddhiman Saha and Ravendra Jadeja.

Morkel’s return of 3/35 in 16.1 overs included the key wickets of Murali Vijay and Virat Kohli and was easily his best bowling performance on the sub-continent. He bowled a bit short in his new ball spell when India got away with a 50-run opening stand between Murali and Shikhar Dhawan in only 14 overs but, once he made the necessary adjustment to his length, he was superb.

He was well supported by Kagiso Rabada, who may have only got one wicket but conceded less than two runs to the over which was exactly what his captain, Hashim Amla, needed from him. It was no coincidence that South Africa won the middle session through the pressure built by Morkel, Rabada and Simon Harmer. The latter took 4 wickets in an innings for the third time in only five Test matches, one of which was a virtual wash-out in Bangladesh and in the process claimed his 250th first-class wicket as well.

He is clearly now South Africa’s No. 1 spin bowler in the five-day format in spite of being left out for the second Test at Bangaluru. Imran Tahir, who took the one wicket he needed to reach his 50th Test dismissal, was not able to provide anything like the same control although he can be expected to come more into his own as the game progresses.

With the benefit of hindsight with reverse swing being achieved as early as the 22nd over when Morkel dismissed Vijay lbw with the ball of the match to date the Proteas may well have been better off with a third seamer which would still have left them with three spinners, even if two of them are not frontline bowlers.

Dean Elgar again picked up a wicket and the onus is now on him and the top order to try to bat South Africa into a lead. It is not going to be easy as the Indian batsmen have struggled just as much as the South Africans but any advantage above 50 runs could well be decisive in deciding the outcome of the match.

A couple of big partnerships would do the trick.