A determined 67 from Jacques Kallis helped South Africa register a five-wicket victory over India in the first one-day international in Hyderabad on Wednesday.
The experienced all-rounder and Ashwell Prince (46) put together a 91-run partnership for the fourth wicket, after captain Graeme Smith (48 from 36 balls) gave the tourists a rousing start in their pursuit of India's total of 249 for 9, to keep the team on top in the middle overs.
Justin Kemp finished off the match with a quick 46 from 49 balls as South Africa chased down the victory target in 48.5 overs.
South Africa are now two matches away from breaking Australia's record of 21 victories on the trot. They are now unbeaten in 20 matches (17 wins, two no-results and a tie).
Earlier, the South African pacers took advantage of helpful conditions at the newly-constructed Rajiv Gandhi International stadium to reduce India to 35 for 5 before Yuvraj Singh and Irfan Pathan (46) revived the innings with a 75-run partnership for the sixth wicket.
Yuvraj scored 103 off 122 balls, inclusive of 10 boundaries and three sixes, after the top order failed miserably.
Harbhajan Singh sparkled in the final overs, playing a cameo innings of 37 off 17 balls, inclusive of four boundaries and two sixes, to give India a fighting total.
For South Africa, pacers Andre Nel (2 for 45), Shaun Pollock (2 for 37) and Makhaya Ntini (2 for 62) rocked India with an early burst of wickets..
Makhaya Ntini justified his captain's decision to bowl first by getting the wicket of Virender Sehwag with his first delivery. He tempted the Indian opener to slash at a short, wide delivery outside the off stump and Ashwell Prince at backward point dived full length to complete a brilliant catch. (1-1, 1.1)
Mohammad Kaif did not survive long, trapped leg before wicket by Shaun Pollock. He opted to play back to a pitched up delivery but missed the ball completely and was caught plumb in front of the wickets. (4-2, 2.2)
Sachin Tendulkar, on 2, was tempted by an outswinger from Pollock that pitched around off stump and moved away. It took the edge straight to wicketkeeper Mark Boucher. Tendulkar must consider himself unlucky to be given out, as television replays confirmed that the ball missed the edge of the bat. (5-3, 4.1)
South Africa, unbeaten in their last 19 matches, they showed their killer instinct in the first 30 minutes of the match, reducing India to 6 for 3 after five overs.
The first boundary for India came after 6.4 overs, when captain Rahul Dravid struck a sweetly timed shot through the off side. Yuvraj Singh then brought some cheer to the shell-shocked crowd, hitting Ntini for a six and a boundary in the eighth over.
But then, fast bowler Andre Nel also struck in his first over, when he broke through Dravid's defences with an in-swinger. The Indian captain was caught laden-footed at the crease to a ball that moved a great deal off the pitch and bowled. (34-4, 10.3)
Supersub Gautam Gambhir, drafted in place of Murali Kartik, did not help the team's cause as he was dismissed after scoring just 1. The left-hander played a reckless shot to a wide delivery from Ntini, when the need of the hour was to play out some overs and try and bring some stability to the innings. (35-5, 11.1)
The Rajiv Gandhi International stadium was hosting its first international match and the only ones pleased with the pitch would have been the South African bowlers, who were making the ball talk at will.
India reached 53 for 5 after 15.2 overs, in sharp contrast to the previous series against Sri Lanka, where they registered blazing starts almost every time.
Spin was introduced after 22 overs in the form of Johan Botha, who was a medium pacer just a year ago before switching to off-spin.
Irfan Pathan and Yuvraj played some intelligent cricket, bringing up the 50-run partnership for the sixth wicket off 72 balls, to bring some respectability to the total as India recovered to some extent, reaching 85 for 5 in the 23rd over.
Botha picked his first international wicket, when Pathan played on to his stumps. The left-hander, after playing a responsible innings of 46, charged down the wicket but misjudged the length and the inside edge rolled onto his stumps. (111-6, 30.1)
Pathan added 75 runs for the sixth wicket with Yuvraj to rescue India from a precarious position, after they were reeling at 35 for 5. With only one recognised batsman left in Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the onus was now on Yuvraj to bat till the end and guide the lower order batsmen.
Yuvraj kept one end going as he reached his half-century from 77 balls, with five boundaries and a six. This was his 20th in ODIs and the second against South Africa. His first half-century against South Africa came in the ICC Champions Trophy in 2002-03, where India triumphed by 10 runs, after South Africa choked at the end after looking set to cruise to the victory target at one stage.
Before the match, South Africa had said that they had planned a few things for Dhoni, who was unstoppable against Sri Lanka. The plan was to bowl just short of a good length and force Dhoni on his backfoot to stop his booming drives and his lofted shots straight down the ground.
The Indian wicketkeeper, on 11, was lucky to survive when Boucher dropped an edge off Jacques Kallis in 34th over. It remained to be seen whether the drop could prove expensive considering Dhoni's current form and his ability to turn matches single-handedly.
South Africa kept things tight for a few overs, before Yuvraj broke the shackles in the 38th over. He launched into Kallis hitting a huge six over long on and then caressed a boundary through the point region as India moved on to 158 for 6 after 38 overs, the first time the innings run rate had crossed the 4 runs per over mark.
Dhoni's over-enthusiasm finally brought about his dismissal, when he took on Nel's arm. The right-hander tried to steal a quick second run, but was caught short of his crease as Boucher whipped off the bails. (159-7, 38.2)
Dhoni's wicket, for 17, seriously dented India's hopes of reaching near the 200-run mark. He added 49 runs for the seventh wicket with Yuvraj, but the majority of the runs in the partnership were made by the left-hander, who was batting on a well-made 78.
Ajit Agarkar made a reasonable contribution of 21, before he was caught by Justin Kemp off Nel at the midwicket in his attempt to lift the scoring in the final overs. (198-8, 46.2)
Yuvraj hit the next ball over the midwicket fence for a six, and then followed it up with a boundary to reach his century in the 47th over. His fifth century in one-dayers came off 120 balls, with 10 boundaries and three sixes and was vital in India's recovery after that horrendous start.
India can take heart from the fact that they won three of the four matches in which Yuvraj has crossed the three-figure mark.
His magnificent innings came to a tame end when he was run out for 103, but his century went a long way in ensuring that India posted a respectable total. (227-9, 47.5)
Harbhajan Singh sizzled in the end overs, playing a quickfire innings of 37 from just 17 balls. He hit four boundaries and two sixes as India scored 38 runs from the last three overs to post a healthy 249 for 9.
India had got off to one of its worst starts in recent years as the combine of Sehwag, Tendulkar, Kaif and Dravid scored just 12 runs between them. At one stage it seemed as if India would even fail to reach the 200-run mark, till the brilliant century by Yuvraj and notable contributions from Pathan and Harbhajan.
For South Africa, Pollock (2 for 37) and Nel (2 for 45) impressed, but failed to restrict Harbhajan and Yuvraj in the end overs. Ntini also suffered, giving away 62 runs for his two wickets.
Can the Indian bowlers now exploit the conditions on a pitch that is getting better for batting? If they pick up early wickets, just like they did against Sri Lanka, then the visitors might find it difficult to chase down the score, especially if the pitch takes some turn later on.
South Africa innings
Captain Grame Smith survived a very close appeal in the first over of the innings when he shuffled across his crease and was hit on the pads off Irfan Pathan, but the umpire felt it hit him just outside the off-stump.
The left-hander followed it up with two boundaries off the next two deliveries. He repeated the treatment in Pathan's next over to give South Africa a flying start at 22 for no loss after three overs.
Agarkar struck the first blow in the sixth over, when he trapped AB de Villiers leg before wicket for 7, with a ball that swung in sharply and hit him on the backfoot. (32-1, 5.2)
Pathan struggled at the other end, conceding 37 from his first spell of four overs. Smith was particularly severe on the left-armer, hitting seven boundaries, for a total of 35 runs from 24 balls he faced from Pathan.
South Africa progressed to a comfortable 61 for 1 after 10 overs, with Smith looking dangerous on 43 as the visitors tried to take full toll of the fielding restrictions.
Supersub Justin Ontong, promoted to number three, became Agarkar's second victim, when he edged the pacer straight to Dravid at first slip after scoring 11. (76-2, 12)
Rudra Pratap Singh immediately struck with the next delivery, getting the wicket of the dangerous-looking Smith. The left-hander scored 48 from 36 balls, with nine boundaries, before he dragged a wide delivery onto his stumps to bring an unfortunate end to his sizzling innings. (76-3, 12.1)
With two new batsmen at the crease, India now hoped to squeeze the scoring rate and pressurise the batsmen in making mistakes. India's only hope lay in taking wickets, considering South Africa's long batting line-up.
Harbhajan Singh's introduction helped bring down the scoring rate; he was helped by some accurate bowling from R P Singh as South Africa reached 96 for 3 after 20 overs.
Kallis and Ashwell Prince consolidated the good start provided by Smith, as they put on a steady partnership of 50 off 82 balls for the fourth wicket to inch closer to the Indian score without taking any major risks.
The middle overs proved a comfortable cruise for Kallis and Prince as Dravid employed his part-time bowlers in Sehwag and Tendulkar, both of whom were milked for easy singles and the occasional boundary.
Harbhajan, after his first spell of seven overs for 26 runs, was introduced into the attack again and he struck by getting the important wicket of Prince. The left-hander tried to loft Harbhajan over the mid-on fielder but holed out straight to the fielder. (165-4, 33.4)
Prince was the aggressive of the two, scoring 46 in the 91-run partnership for the fourth wicket with Kallis. The door was now open for India, with wicketkeeper Boucher and the all-rounders following to test their batting skills against the spinners.
Tendulkar's magic arm worked wonders for India yet again, when Boucher hit a full toss straight to Dravid on the leg side. (168-5, 34.3)
It remained to be seen whether South Africa's past of choking in close matches would return to haunt them. Harbhajan completed his 10-over spell, conceding 35 runs and taking the wicket of Prince, as South Africa reached 183 for 5 after 38 overs, needing 67 runs in 72 balls.
Kallis reached his half-century from 78 balls, with just three boundaries, underlining his intention to preserve his wicket and stay till the end. The Indian part time spinners kept maintaining a tight leash as South Africa needed a run-a-ball from 48 balls.
35 runs were needed from the last six overs, but two boundaries in the 45th over from Agarkar gave South Africa the upper hand as they took 10 runs from the over.
Thereafter, Kemp and Kallis just played normal cricket as South Africa chased down the victory target in 48.5 overs and won by five wickets.
Kallis hit a boundary off Agarkar as South Africa posted 252 for 5 in 48.5 overs to take a 1-0 lead in the five-match series. He played the anchor role to perfection, staying unbeaten on 68.
Meanwhile, Kemp, who has acquired the reputation of finishing close matches, closed the match in style, with a quick knock of 46 from 49 balls.
The visiting Proteas, who have never won a one-day series in India, extended their unbeaten run to 20 matches that stretches back to January this year.
Harbhajan Singh was the pick of the bowlers for India, taking 1 for 35 in 10 overs, while Agarkar was the top wicket-taker, claiming 2 for 50.
Strange it may seem, but India's best bowler of the day, R P Singh, who took one wicket for 18 in seven overs, was not called for a second spell.
The Indian bowlers sent down as many as 13 wides and six no balls, something coach Greg Chappell will have to work upon before the second match.
The next match is a day-night encounter at Bangalore, on November 19, and the toss could yet again play a crucial role, as it gets difficult for the side bowling second under the floodlights. Added to that, there is the possibility of dew in the cold weather.