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South Africa win second Test
Prem Panicker | December 30, 2006 14:50 IST
Last Updated: December 30, 2006 19:15 IST
On the evening of the fourth day, Mark Boucher said South Africa would need only 50 overs to bowl out India.
He was being pessimistic -- India ended up losing its remaining 8 wickets in 42 overs on the final day, to hand the hosts a series-squaring win.
It was a game of ifs: if the top order had displayed the application of the tailenders; if batsmen who should have known better had picked their shots with better care...
Earlier this year, India had capitulated in similar fashion against England in Mumbai; it ended the year with another abject capitulation -- this time, when even the weather was favorable to its cause.
Here is the story:
After a 55 minute delay caused by adverse light, conditions improved just enough for the Proteas to bowl 4.3 overs -- time enough to indicate that no cure has yet been found for India's traditional fourth-innings insanity (think Mumbai this year, versus England, as merely the latest exemplar).
The most noticeable aspect of Sachin Tendulkar's batting in the first innings had been a willingness to come forward to everything but the really short length; that one adjustment was enough for him to bat with the authority of old, his cuts, drives square and in front of the wicket, and flicks once more finding the sweetest of sweet spots.
Why, with that example to inform him, would he want -- to only the fifth ball of the morning -- to stick a front toe out gingerly, like a non-swimmer testing the waters, then hop back onto the top of the crease in a manner that led to his repeated downfall during the preceding ODIs?
The ball from Ntini was just back of length; not short enough to climb. Tendulkar however opted to reverse direction, and was pinned on top of the crease, hopelessly out of position to play the ball. Umpire Asad Rauf had an easy decision to make (0/7; 38/3).
At the other end, Wasim Jaffar looked refreshingly positive. He started off by flicking Pollock through square leg to the fence, then got a full stride out to guide the bowler for a brace into the covers. He was looking as good as he had last evening, when that insanity referred to above struck: to a short ball from Ntini sailing harmlessly through about two feet outside off, Jaffar uncorked a shocking cross-bat hoik that merely succeeded in lobbing the ball up for Andre Nel to hold behind his bowling mate's back (28/47; 45/4).
Sourav Ganguly gritted his way through seven deliveries that almost exclusively were aimed at his larynx; at the other end, Laxman got a full stride out to deliveries testing him around off, and 13 deliveries after Jaffar's exit, Ganguly and Laxman walked back too, this time through the benevolence of darkening skies and unrelenting light meters.
At the time of writing this, the score stands at 47/4; there is no telling when, or if, play will resume.
Post lunch session:
Play resumed at 12.10 local time -- and first crack out of the box, you got the feeling that Sourav Ganguly had spent the prolonged break deciding to fight fire with fireworks.
Makhaya Ntini resumed his interrupted over with a harmless bouncer; Ganguly launched into a pull that was pure suicide-bait. Unlike Wasim Jaffer earlier, though, he failed to hit it off the middle; the lucky edge he got instead sent the ball spiralling over the slip cordon and down to the third man fence. A ball later, he went the other way, moving inside the line to a short one, and getting a thick inner edge that flashed past a diving Mark Boucher to the fine leg fence.
The real contest though was between Andre Nel and Ganguly; the bowler went around the wicket, lining Ganguly up around the off stump with a stream of vicious lifters and fuller length deliveries. It was a fight for life -- and in such battles, progress is measured in little victories. Ganguly scored one such when he got nicely on top of a lifting delivery to guide past gully for four; he scored another when he got nicely behind a delivery homing in on his rib cage and pushed back down the track; he won a third when he patted another short ball down with the softest of hands and took off for a short single that forced an overthrown four by way of bonus; and he seemed to have won the war when he forced Nel back over the wicket and into a more conventional line of attack.
The southpaw seemed to handle Ntini with more comfort. Perhaps the best moment of his entire innings was off the last ball of the 22nd over, when Ntini swung very close to the stumps and banged one down. Ganguly moved fluidly back and across, squared up, put body behind the line and bat in front of body, and played it down with consummate ease.
And then, he threw it all away. In the 28th over, Ntini's 14th straight over, the bowler began with a delivery that was harmless by any standards. It hit around off, it rose, and was moving away when Ganguly went up on his toes, got on top of the ball, and clinically guided it into the hands of Herschelle Gibbs at gully (26/33; 83/5) to give Ntini dream figures of 14-4-32-5.
It was a standout spell of fast bowling; the pity of it, as cricketing spectacle, was that the batsmen surrendered without a fight. Without taking anything away from a match-winning spell, you had to say that the batsmen contributed at least 50 per cent to every one of those five wickets -- or at least, four of the five, if you consider the umpire's take down of Rahul Dravid.
At the other end, VVS Laxman was fighting his own battles, his way -- and coming off second best. Off the last ball of the 20th over, for instance, Laxman did a Tendulkar and Ntini almost did a Ntini. The bowler swung wide of the crease, again hit that length just shy of good, and jagged it in. Laxman opted to stay rooted on top of the crease, as Tendulkar had; he ended up bent double, as Tendulkar was; he was hit on the pad, as Tendulkar was.
This time, Asad Rauf ruled not out -- a marginal decision, with the umpire figuring it would have just missed leg and Hawkeye indicating that it could have shaved the outside of leg stump.
There was, in the way he played that ball, a warning of things to come, though: Laxman in the first innings, again as Tendulkar had, was very committed to front foot play. Here, for some reason, he seemed to prefer going back, sometimes ridiculously so, and more often than not found himself in no man's land on top of the batting crease.
First Ntini, then Nel, preyed on this defect, cutting the batsman in half with express deliveries that jagged back in and went through the batsman as if he were a mere astral presence. The odd punch off the back foot and flick off the pads, signature shots both, came as aberrations. Normalcy was restored in the 29th over. Nel landed one again just back of good length and jagged it in; again, Laxman opted to stay perched on top of the crease and go across the line; he ended up even looking like Tendulkar, bent double while the ball went through him to clip the top of the stumps. The weird thing about that dismissal was that the way the batsman bent double, you thought the ball had stayed low when, in fact, it had bounced enough to hit the top of off (15/44; 85/6).
In one of those ironies sport is so full off, Anil Kumble (about whose batting I wrote, among other things, in a column that you'll likely see on Rediff before the day is out) fought off everything Pollock and Morkel could hurl at him -- and just when it looked like that battle was won, with the introduction of Andrew Hall, Kumble's resistance ended. To give the tailender credit, Hall's first ball could have done even Kumble's batting betters: a snorter reared up into the batsman's throat; all Kumble could do was fend at it, and pop up a dolly to Hashim Amla at short leg, to end a resistance ideally measured not in deliveries played (31) as in time consumed (40 minutes). (Kumble 11/31; India 103/7).
The sun had come out while Kumble was at the crease; Dhoni flowered following his departure, first taking on Pollock and driving him through mid on, then jumping back to make room and punching him through point. Graeme Smith brought on the quicker Morkel, and Dhoni first flicked the four to fine leg, then glanced the next ball even finer, and to the third ball, thumped it straight down the ground. Zaheer Khan, otherwise intent on gritty defense, produced his own flick off the hips off Hall in between, to record a four of his own.
The message was clear -- you could actually bat out there, if you wanted to.
And just in case his seniors weren't watching, Dhoni rubbed it in again. In the 45th over of the innings, he first spanked a short one from Hall over point, then walked across the stumps to change the angle and flick fine to fine leg, then moved inside the line again to play even finer for a third successive four. More perhaps than that spate of boundaries was the visible demonstration of intent: a Morkel snorter saw the batsman come across and into line, play it down with the softest of hands in front of point, and scamper the swift single, taking advantage of the fact that his hitting had put the fielders back on their heels, ready to defend and not quite as quick off the mark to run forward. In the next over, he then cracked a square drive off Morkel that left Gibbs at point standing, to bring up the 50 of the partnership off 51 balls.
While Dhoni did the scoring, it was an equal partnership with Zaheer Khan playing fitting foil. He often looked clumsy against the short pitched stuff aimed at his body -- but you could say that about several batsmen who had gone before. The real point was, he didn't just hang in there; he fought back. When chance afforded, he hit; when it didn't, he looked to work the ball around and give Dhoni back the strike. And through it all, he showed a hell-bent determination to stay out there.
With tea approaching, Smith threw Ntini the ball for another burst; Dhoni greeted him with a forehand smash that couldn't get past mid on, then rocked back and smashed him behind point to find the fence yet again. At the other end, Nel came back on, and the entertainment finally ended. With just one over to go for tea, Nel bounced one outside Dhoni's off stump; the batsman saw the width and went for it, looking to force square; the ball bounced a fraction more than he thought it would and as it screamed off the thick top edge, Boucher flung himself a long way to his right to pull off a remarkable catch (47/67; 160/8).
That was the position at tea -- and with the sky looking remarkably clear, chances are the light will hold long enough for SA to force a decision in this game. In a sense, that is as it should be; having played for the most part in abject fashion especially with the bat, India didn't really deserve to be bailed out by the elements.
Post tea session:
Post tea play was like a Hitchcock film -- it was all about light and shadow, suspense and heartbreak.
The weather, set fair when tea was called, was the first to take a hand -- the skies darkened dramatically, the light meter came out, and Zaheer Khan and Sreesanth did everything they could, within the rule book, to help things along.
Each took a blow; each asked for attention. Zaheer blinked, looked skywards and, short of holding up a sign, signalled to the umpires that the light was going.
Touch and go, it seemed -- and touch and go it finally was: Andre Nel bowled one at scorching pace through the channel, on length good enough to draw Zaheer forward and with sufficient late movement to finally find the edge; Hall finished it off at third slip and Zaheer's determined resistance (21 runs, 56 deliveries) finally came to an end.
Hall then moved to the bowling crease and banged one in. Sreesanth was caught between fending at it and leaving the ball alone; in the event the ball sailed through to the keeper and the appeal was upheld. Perhaps fittingly for a match where umpiring decisions have caused some heartburn, replays indicated that the ball had gone off the batsman's shoulder, not the bat.
No matter -- India all out 179, the scorecard read, and the 175 run margin of victory was fair reflection on the way the two teams played. South Africa, throughout, were more positive, more focussed, more full of intent and clearly fixated on the goal of squaring the series; India ambled through large sections of the Test as if not quite sure what it was doing out there, and paid a price.
All square now, and the teams will lock horns again in Cape Town January 2 onwards to decide the series.
See you then; meanwhile, a very happy new year to all of you.
India's tour of South Africa 2006: The Complete Coverage
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