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Azhar, Sachin lead Indian fightback

Prem Panicker

Last evening, India were three down for 29. Needlessly so, thanks to silly cricket, on a beauty of a batting track.

This evening, it is SA two down for 24 at close, after getting a lead of just 170 where, 24 overs earlier, a follow on and another crushing win seemed on the cards for the home side.

The difference between day two and day three? Finally, and just about in the nick of time, the Indian batsmen displayed the application they lacked so totally at Durban.

And immediately, the South African attack began looking ordinary, with even the brilliant Allan Donald forced to trundle on a wicket that had very little in it for him.

Here is how it all went...

The Indian innings

India resumed at its overnight 29/3 with Ganguly batting 19 and Tendulkar on 1.

The obvious ploy was to blunt the initial aggression of the SA bowlers in the first hour, and then look to accumulate runs in calm, sensible fashion. Ganguly, though, began with a silken cover drive off the first ball from Donald, then tried the stroke again off the second ball though this one was faster, and bounced and moved more. The feather touch was inevitable, and India had lost another wicket it could ill afford, not so much because of the bowling but because the batsman concerned didn't use his head. (Ganguly caught McMillan bowled Donald 23, Fall of Wicket 4-33.

Laxman looked tense, nervous, almost as if the 529 runs SA had scored in its first innings was a huge boulder weighing him down. On this or any wicket, the best bet for a batsman is to forget about the huge rival total, set himself the goal of staying at the wicket and getting his eye in, playing calm, sensible cricket. Nervousness, though, induced in Laxman a fatal hesitancy in stroke selection and footwork, and Pollock exploited it well to bring one into his body, the ball climbing and Laxman, going too far across, getting the glove to the keeper. VVS Laxman caught Richardson bowled Pollock 5, FOW 5-58.

Out came Azharuddin, and though he was obviously in his aggressive frame of mind, he looked a shade tentative before lunch, primarily because he was not sure of whether to go forward or back. At the other end, however, Sachin Tendulkar was batting in ominous fashion, defending the good balls and hitting the bad ones easily and finding the gaps and suddenly looking more the Tendulkar of old. What was most noticeable was that even in defence, Sachin wasn't playing the dead bat strokes but preferring to move into line and push into the offside field, always a better bet on this sort of wicket. It will, of course, be remembered that on a similar batting track at Calcutta, Sachin tried the dead bat forward defensive stroke in pre-determined fashion and fell bat pad to Symcox in a rather silly fashion.

After the lunch break, Lance Klusener got the ball - and Azhar went into overdrive. Four fours in his first over, four more in his second, Tendulkar chipping in with two fours off Donald, and suddenly it was a different ball game out there. The difference? Azhar had by then worked out that this pitch didn't have the bounce to rattle him, and settled on going on the front foot and playing his strokes with full backlift and follow through.

In Calcutta, when Azhar was in his blazing mood, he didn't have the luxury of Tendulkar at the other end. Here he did, and suddenly, bowler after bowler disappeared as the assault was mounted from both ends, by the two most exciting batsmen in the Indian side. Through this partnership, of 200 plus runs at almost a run a ball, Tendulkar remained the calm accumulator, destructive of bad length and line and defensive against the good ball, while Azhar was pure, unadulterated aggression.

Cronje, in this phase, was reduced to bringing himself on if only to halt the flow of runs, while Adams at the other end mixed the odd good ball with deliveries that strayed in line and length. Adams flighted well, got impressive turn, and would have been a more successful bowler on the day if he could have steadied his length. There were, though, too many loose deliveries, and against batsmen of this class, that proved fatal.

Interestingly, the blitz by these two took the edge off the SA fielding as well. Inevitable, perhaps - this morning, SA were looking at the possibility of their bowlers doing another blitzkrieg on the Indian batsmen - and suddenly, the field looked shrunken in size as ball after ball was despatched to the fence with minimum effort. The result, Cronje dropped a slightly difficult - though not by his own or SA's standards - catch off Azhar's lofted cover drive, and an over later, Hudson put down the most straightforward of catches off an uppish Sachin cut at point off Pollock.

Azhar finally departed to a great bit of fielding. Taking off after dabbing the ball to the left of Hudson at point, Azhar was sent back by Tendulkar and before he could regain ground, Hudson had returned and Richardson taken the bails off. Mohammad Azharuddin run out 115 off 110 deliveries with 19 fours and a six off Adams, FOW - 6/280.

Nayan Mongia came in next, looking none the worse for injury but decidedly off colour with the bat. A ball from Adams outside off saw the Indian keeper going back instead of forward, the ball turned in where MOngia was looking for it to leave him, and the LBW was asked and given with no doubt. Mongia LBW Adams 5, FOW 7/298.

In came Kumble, looking obdurate as always with the bat and playing with assurance. The second new ball was claimed the instant it fell due and Donald produced the strike, albeit fortuitous. A lifter on off stump beat Kumble's bat, hit the arm and the Indian vice captain had the mortification of being declared out caught behind. Kumble caught Richardson bowled Donald 2, FOW: 8/315.

Javagal Srinath was greeted with the predictable profusion of boundaries by both Donald and Pollock, but to the Indian tailender's credit, he not only stood his ground well but when Donald pitched really short, even played a perfect pull to the fence for four. And more to the point, he kept Tendulkar company for long enough to ensure that the follow on was avoided, before departing, inner-edging Pollock onto the stumps. Srinath bowled Pollock 11, FOW 9/240.

D Ganesh, the last Indian batsman, showed equally admirable technique against the stream of short pitched stuff, and in the event it was Tendulkar who departed, thanks to the most brilliant catch I have seen in a very very long time. Brian McMillan, who surprisingly got a mere six hours with the first new ball, was brought on, Tendulkar pulled with savage power and Adam Bacher, standing a few yards in front of the line at backward square, saw the ball plummet over his left shoulder and towards the ropes. Precisely how the youngster managed to throw himself up and back and pluck that one, perhaps even he couldn't tell you now - the thing was, he made the attempt, and it worked. And that, actually, is the secret of the great fielders - they try, give each chance everything they've got and never settle for fielding the ball if there is an outside chance of catching it. And Tendulkar's innings - a measured, calm, controlled one, in which he batted once again with the fluency of pre-captaincy days, ended. Sachin Tendulkar caught Bacher bowled McMillan 169 off 253 deliveries, 26 fours, FOW: 10/359.

As for the SA bowlers, what does one say? They were as good as Sachin and Azhar allowed them to be. The wicket had nothing in it for them, there was no cloud to aid swing, even the stiffish breeze blew milder on the day and the result was, every single bowler including Donald, except for that brief burst with the second new ball, looked very ordinary indeed.

And that, more than the avoidance of the follow on, could be the ultimate result of the performance of Sachin and Azhar today. For with these two innings, they proved both to themselves and their younger, less experienced colleagues that this attack could be tamed even on its own home ground - and this, I suspect, will make a difference when the likes of Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman in particular have to bat again, either here or at the Wanderers for the third Test.

The RSA II innings

For South Africa, going in with a lead of 170 and with two days of play left, the gameplan was to prevent the Indian bowlers from knocking over a wicket or two. That would leave them all of tomorrow, to try and aim for a declaration target around the 425, 450 mark - remembering the speed with which the Indians scored today, anything less could just prove dangerous to the home side.

Ganesh got to share the new ball with Srinath, and for once I was in accord with Tendulkar's captaincy on that one. It gave the debutant fast bowler a feeling of confidence that will come in handy in future games, to be entrusted with the new ball ahead of Prasad, and when he beat Kirsten several times with movement both in and out, then straightened one to trap the opener LBW, it was apparent that his morale had gone up several notches. For India, seeking a back up for Prasad and Srinath, this spell of Ganesh could prove very valuable in the games ahead, both here and in the West Indies.

Srinath, meanwhile, was, as usual, very good with the new ball even on this track. Seaming it in and out, varying his pace, he first kept Hudson quiet, then surprised new man in Bacher with one that cut sharply back off the seam and again, the LBW was asked and given, and SA suddenly found itself facing a total of 7/2.

Which brought in Lance Klusener. And this is where I thought Sachin slipped a bit - he not only kept Ganesh on throughout, but also missed the obvious ploy of resting Srinath and giving Prasad an over or two with the breeze behind him. Prasad is a strike bowler, and should, in the circumstances, have had at least two overs, flat out, at the SA batsmen.

Most inexplicably, when the bowling change came off the last over of the day, it was Kumble rather than Prasad who got the over. And that, given the Indian leggie's performance in the first innings, and his obstinate refusal to flight and look for turn, preferring a flat, fast mode of attack with no possibility of turn, was totally inexplicable.

In the event, SA at the end of the day were 24/2, with Klusener on 10 and Hudson on seven.

In effect, that is, the score is 194/2, with two days to go.

So where are those two days going?

Logically, on this track, a draw looks the most likely option. But if SA can throw its bat around tomorrow and put together, say an hour before close, a target in excess of 425, then the option of having an hour at the Indian batsmen's throats, and another tilt at them, refreshed, on the fifth morning could look attractive for the home side, given that the Indian batting is yet to really come good all the way through, and the youngsters could still be suspect to pressure.

For India, the key could be the first hour of play tomorrow. Knock back another two, three wickets, and suddenly it will be SA which is under pressure, their options then being only to defend dourly and look for the draw while India can still look at bowling flat out, hoping the home side cracks under pressure and puts an attainable target on the board for the last innings chase on a good batting track.

Alternately, bowl on the stumps, the field defensive, and keep Cronje and company quiet, delaying the declaration by starving the batting side of runs.

Either way, it is interesting to see that from here, though the draw is the best bet, any of three results are still possible. And isn't that a great way to end day three of a Test anyway?

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