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India snatch slender lead

Last updated on: January 04, 2007 21:42 IST


Anil Kumble picked four wickets as South Africa were dismissed for 374 in their first innings at the end of Day 3 in the third Test in Cape Town on Thursday.

Having scored 414 in the first innings, India start the fourth day with a slender lead of 41 runs.

Resuming the day on 114 for 1, South Africa were always under pressure after the dismissal of skipper Graeme Smith (94) and Hashim Amla (63), but thanks to an 83-run fourth-wicket partnership between Jacques Kallis (54) and Ashwell Prince (26), and a 69-run stand between Mark Boucher (50) and Shaun Pollock (31) for the seventh wicket, they did manage to inch closer to India's total.

Kumble was India's most successful bowler, claiming 4 for 117 from 42-odd overs.

Morning session

The morning session produced one of Test cricket's simple joys: a duel to the death between a combative leg spinner and an attacking left hand batsman.

Speaking before the start of play, members of the Star Sports commentary team had wondered at Anil Kumble's performance on the second evening. 12 overs for 39 runs without a wicket told part of the story; the problem was an over-eagerness to break through, that saw the leggie trying too hard and, as so often happens at such times to him, dragging the ball down too quick and too flat, drifting too often to leg and beyond.

He was trying a bit too hard, Greg Chappell said before the start; he needs to cool off a little.

On the third morning, Kumble was Mr Cool -- taking his time between deliveries, slowing himself down, tossing the ball up a lot more and giving it a healthy tweak to give it turn, and the occasional surprising bounce. And that set up the contest: Graeme Smith, by now batting close to the best he has ever been, took the leggie on, working him with the turn smoothly off his pads, standing back when the length was shorter to force against the angle, and dancing down to pick the bowler right out of the rough for a glorious on drive -- a shot that spoke to the tremendous confidence the batsman was feeling.

At that point, Kumble was bowling around the wicket to the left-hander, coming close to the stumps, looking for straight lines around off to bring the ball in to the stumps. The leg before seemed the best mode of dismissal that line was intended to achieve.

Halfway through the 49th over, Kumble changed tack. He took to swinging very wide of the crease, sending the ball down at a far more acute angle to the southpaw, forcing him to square up and setting him up for either the jumping leg break or the google to find the edge. Smith began to look fidgety -- through that over and the first four balls of the next, he kept looking for the productive forcing shot, with the turn, off his pads but found himself stymied by the change in angle. Yet, that same angle made it more imperative for the shot to work: he could no longer afford to go back and force; the rough was too dangerous to drive against the turn on the off, so the on side was the only place runs could be had.

Smith fell into the trap: to the 5th ball of the 51st over he went for the shot anyway, reaching around and driving at it. The angle meant reduced control over the shot; the ball was a touch in the air and dropping when Virender Sehwag, at mid on, dove to his left to pull off a great catch (Sehwag this series has made a habit of taking great catches; this is the second time a stunner has sent Smith back).

It was a classic dismissal by a working man's leg spinner: no flash, just a gradual tightening, a narrowing down of the angles, the squeeze increasingly applied, and finally the reward (94/142; 173/2 SA; partnership 159 at 3.39). Smith fell six shy of a century he would have well deserved. Luck had briefly sided with him when his first ball hook flew over fine leg (a similar shot in the previous Test had ballooned for Tendulkar to run a long way back from slip and hold); from that point on, though, he batted with the authority of old, playing shots on both sides of the wicket, off either foot, and looking increasingly like the man who could put South Africa in pole position. Outside of the on drive off Kumble, there were two successive on drives off Zaheer Khan that screamed to the fence with ominous authority.

Once Smith left, the pressure transferred to Hashim Amla. Grittily though the batsman had played in this innings, it needs mentioning that he had been carefully nursemaided along by his captain, who with his fluency, and readiness to take strike, allowed Amla to play in his considerable shadow.

As senior partner after the fall of Smith, Amla was back in the spotlight, and the fidgets showed as Sreesanth, who had a bit of a to-do with the batsman late last evening, tied him up with a series of pretty much everything a fast bowler could bowl: a yorker, an away swinger, an inswinger, a short, lifting delivery... the dot balls were racking up, and when Sreesanth bowled one through the channel a bit wide, seaming it further away, Amla lit up at the possibility of getting a bit of his own back. His slashing drive, though, merely managed to find the edge through to Karthick (63/174; 177/3 SA). With the wicket, Sreesanth joined Javagal Srinath (18 wickets in three Tests) and Anil Kumble (18 in 4) as the leading striker on South African soil.

The Indians were far tighter in the field than on the previous evening, yet they missed at least three run out chances, off Smith, Kallis and Prince. Those blemishes apart, the fielders attacked the ball more, made run-scoring considerably more difficult, and helped the bowlers bring the run rate down and the pressure guage up. The ten overs following Amla's dismissal saw the run rate drop to around 2.3 -- a considerable improvement on last evening, when Smith and Amla were going on at 3.5 or better.

The 64th over was perhaps the best of the morning: Munaf Patel, to Ashwell Prince. Three balls to warm up, three balls to make the very correct Prince look like a batting novice. One kicked off length and just flashed past the outer edge, the next was fuller, went away late, and beat the edge again, the third again beat the bat for pace and impossibly late movement -- how the three balls missed the edge, the batsman never knew.

Last evening, South Africa was cruising; the smart money would have been on an emphatic batting performance that before the day was out overtook India's first innings score and went into the lead. By the end of the first session, though, the cruise had become a sluggish progress through choppy waters, and a fight was on again. Both Kallis and Prince played labored knocks, struggling against seam, leg spin and off spin alike.

Lunch-time score: South Africa 206/3 in 71 overs; Jacques Kallis 18/50; Ashwell Prince 9/56; 62 runs in the session off 30 overs; overall run rate now 2.91.

Post-Lunch session

Like two out of form boxers each trying to get away from the ring without sustaining lasting damage, India and South Africa for most of this session kept taking little pokes at one another, without quite managing to land the telling blow.

India's bowlers kept the pressure going, with tight lines and backed -- for the most part; no Indian fielding effort is really cent per cent -- with some good fielding. The two South African batsmen played within the limitations imposed on them, clearly content to ensure that they did not lose their wickets, even if runs only came at a trickle.

Fascinating stuff, for sure, but you kept waiting for one or the other side to take the initiative; with time ticking by, someone had to, to make a match of this.

It is a commentary on how the game developed that the most exciting period came when part-time all-sorts bowler Sachin Tendulkar came on to bowl around/over the wicket leg/off breaks, googlies and anything else that occured to his fertile imagination. And, in the process, wrested the initiative back for his side.

Ravi Shastri reported before start of play that he had asked Tendulkar if he expected to bowl. Yes, supposedly was the reply, and I expect to get a couple of wickets, too.

He only came on in the 88th over, but almost lived up to his promise -- or boast -- an over later, when he threw one up around off, flighting it so much even Kallis with his inhuman patience was tempted into a drive. The ball bit, turned a mile, found the edge and found Laxman standing too wide at slip to be able to hang on. To add insult to that injury, Kallis then swept Tendulkar off middle stump for the four that got him to a grittily compiled 50 (161 balls).

The bowler got his revenge an over later: again, the ball was tossed up. Kallis probably saw all this as lese majestie -- how, he must have been thinking, can this bloke bowl at me when I've seen through the wiles of a Kumble? Down he went on one knee for the slog sweep, to a ball pitched outside off and turning further away, and clinically picked out Munaf Patel on the midwicket boundary to give India the breakthrough it had spent most of the afternoon seeking (54/129; 260/4; 4th wicket partnership 83 at 2.17). (Munaf in fact dived well to hold, but soon reverted to form, diving all over a Gibbs pull off Tendulkar that should have fetched one at best, and gave away the boundary).

In cricket, they say one wicket breeds others; so it was here, as Kumble struck in the very next over. The delivery, from around the wicket, landed a foot and a half outside Prince's off stump, the batsman went back to force square, was cramped for room as the ball turned sharply in to him, and managed only to chop the ball onto his stumps, to end a typically patient vigil that brought him all of 26 runs to show for 113 balls faced (260/5).

The fall of the two wickets woke the Indians up from their somnolence -- suddenly, things began to happen, with Tendulkar turning Boucher inside out and round about and, at the other end, Kumble appealing his heart out and being very unlucky to be denied an LBW off Gibbs.

Next up, Virender Sehwag, who earlier in the day had bowled a couple of probing spells without quite being able to break through. With tea approaching, he got another go -- a good move, as the batsmen were just looking to settle down against two leg break bowlers in Tendulkar and Kumble. And he struck, in his first over, when he made one spin and bounce; Gibbs went back, looking to work it off his hips, but managed only to get the faintest edge onto pad for Wasim Jaffar, under the helmet, to lunge forward and hold well at short square leg (7/24; SA 281/6).

At tea, taken immediately after Sehwag's successful over, South Africa were once again on the ropes, forced to struggle against the turning ball; it was clearly India's session.

Tailpiece: The point region has in recent times been renamed Jonty's corner. But even before the man who covers the 1/3rd of the ground not covered by water came along, that region was traditionally where the best fielders are posted. Even more so when you have a leg spinner bowling on a turning track, and seamers making the ball reverse away from the right handers. So, check out this list of some of the great contemporary point fielders: Rhodes, Gibbs, Ponting, Munaf Patel, Zaheer Khan...

Not kidding: what on earth was Munaf, the slowest mover in the Indian side, doing at that position, more so when he was himself in the middle of a spell and in no physical shape to stand at that point? Much is made of getting fielders in the right position -- but surely, the real trick is getting the right fielder in the right position?

Tea time score: SA 283/6; Shaun Pollock 1/3; Mark Boucher 14/26; 77 runs in the session for the loss of three wickets in 31 overs.

Post-Tea session

The bang you heard as Mark Boucher connected one of his innumerable checked drives after tea was the window of opportunity, slamming in the face of the Indian team.

It was around the point the second new ball was taken; the first one had been pounded around for 115 overs, 35 more than it was really designed to take. The 7th wicket partnership had realized 50; Boucher was playing his patented inventive innings, bustling around on the crease, pushing, prodding, poking, occasionally stroking runs to every part of the field. At the other end, Shaun Pollock was riding his current rich vein of batting form: patient against the good balls, hawklike in his ability to seize on the bad ones, the all rounder kept the board ticking over without ever looking in trouble.

And with every over that went by without a wicket -- during the first hour after tea, it needs to be mentioned, India tried Kumble, Tendulkar, Munaf, Sreesanth and Zaheer -- India's problems mounted. It was not so much that the lead was being chipped away; the real problem was the overs equation.

Over the next two days, there are 180 overs left to play. India's only chance of a win is to score a good 250, hopefully 75 more, inside 90 or, at the maximum, 100 overs, then put South Africa back in and hope to take them out inside that total, and within the 80-90 overs remaining. Can be done, but thus far, India hasn't done anything in this game, or even this series, to suggest that it is capable of such derring-do.

That opens up the other possibility: that South Africa comes hard at the Indians, bowls them out cheap, then hunts down whatever target remains. It was here that a lead would have been invaluable, as a platform to build on (a lead of 100 or so, for instance, might have tempted the team management to risk sending Sehwag out at the top of the order, and telling him to go Nuts R Us and see if he couldn't break the game open with a quick cameo or, since there is no law against dreaming, a longer, aggressive innings).

And it is for this reason that the Boucher-Pollock stand, that resisted spin and seam alike and kept chipping at the total, was worth its weight in platinum. The two denied India a sizeable lead, and in doing so, sent the message that India's chances of winning had become considerably more remote. It was also this partnership that rubbed into Indian heads the knowledge that in collapsing from 394/5 to 414 all out, the team had thrown away its best chance of the game, especially after having won the toss and got first strike. 500 was the minimum India should have aimed for; it was, as mentioned in an earlier report, a bit odd to hear everyone from coach to expert commentators talk of 400 being a 'good' score.

All that said, in the interest of fairness it needs mentioning that India didn't exactly abdicate the game: Mickey Arthur and Graeme Smith, after a very good evening session yesterday, had spoken of aiming for a bit over 500, hopefully by early on the fourth morning, to then try and bundle India out cheap. By consistently taking wickets out in each session, India ensured that the Proteas gameplan didn't work. And that is doubly commendable because unlike in the first two Tests, this track wasn't doing much, especially for the seamers -- and like Pollock and company in the Indian innings, Sreesanth and gang had to put themselves on the line throughout a very long, hard, hot day -- and yet they didn't really wilt.

There are other, hidden, problems for India that could surface on day five. Munaf Patel, especially after tea, looked distinctly ginger on his left foot (so much for the frenzied calls, in sections of the media, for him to have been played in the second Test, and the conspiracy theories that tried to explain why he was not -- the guy is not even fully fit here, let alone in Durban. His left ankle is clearly not recovered enough for him to trust -- and that is a huge problem for a fast bowler who needs a stable left foot for the gather as he strides into the delivery; without that gather, a bowler is never likely to hit optimum speeds). Sreesanth, who bowled superbly all day, twisted his ankle while landing it in a bit of a hole at the bowling crease in the 118th over and though he gritted his teeth and bowled on, the ankle was clearly worrying him; whether some ice and treatment will bring him back to full fitness remains to be seen. If Sreesanth is under par, it not only takes out the most attacking of India's seamers, but puts on Zaheer Khan and Anil Kumble the sort of pressure no two bowlers can be expected to function under.

Just when India's fielders were visibly wilting, as were the bowlers, and runs were consequently easier to come by, Shaun Pollock had a momentary lapse of reason. Zaheer Khan angled one across the right hander, running it through straight off the seam; Pollock drove at it hard, but without really getting into line; the edge flew to first slip and Sourav Ganguly held smartly (31/57;SA 350/7; partnership 69 runs at 3.66).

With South Africa's relatively small, snubby tail opposite him, Mark Boucher stepped up through the gears, swinging away at everything and hitting them off the middle more often that not; the Indian fielding, 'led' by Munaf, helped the good work along with some shambolic work in the outfield. A single off Kumble, brought back as cover for the struggling Munaf, got him to his 50 (96 balls and, equally crucially, 139 minutes of resistance).

In the next over, bowling on a wing and a prayer, at speeds just fractionally quicker than Kumble's, Munaf managed to tempt Boucher into coming a long way forward looking to drive, late away movement found the edge to Karthick (50/97; 372/8).

An over later, Kumble bowled a bit quicker than Munaf, and went through Dale Steyn to take out middle stump (1/5; 373/9). Next ball, again quick and straight, Ntini was struck on the pad, and given out -- the batsman was a bit upset, but the decision was right, and that left Kumble on a hat-trick, at the end of the South African innings. Curiously, for the third successive session, India had begun badly, then pulled back ahead with late wickets.

South Africa ended on 373 all out; behind India on the first innings by 41 runs on the first innings; a lead far more slender than India would have hoped for, but it is still a lead, and India go into the second innings on 41 for no loss.

The wicket brought play to a close for the day; India's tactics on day four should be interesting: will it look to push hard for a sizeable score and a declaration, or play the safe game and look to bat on and shut the door on the series?

Prem Panicker