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February 25, 2000


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Wickets tumble at the Wankhede

Prem Panicker

When 15 wickets fall in a day's play, for just 225 runs, you begin to think this must be one of those notorious minefields.

Think again. It wasn't. There was lift and seam for the quick men. There was turn for spinners prepared to give the ball a tweak. And there were runs, for batsmen who were prepared to play the ball rather than the demons in their own mind.

In other words, a fine, testing track -- and first South Africa, then India, effectively failed that test. And as early as the end of day two, two things are clear: one, this game won't last beyond day four, if that. And two, it is going to become a test of which team holds its nerve better -- nerve, rather than the ball or the bat, is likely to decide the outcome of this one.

South Africa this morning seemed to be on cruise control. Resuming at 26 for not, the two Protean openers took advantage of some loose bowling by the Indian opening pair of Srinath and Agarkar. Gibbs was the aggressor, Kirsten the one who had seemingly settled down for the long haul. And the runs came freely -- at a rate of well over 3.5, which meant that the game was in danger of going completely out of India's hands.

And then the spinners came on, in successive overs, and the game changed. Kumble got the ball to kick, and Murali Karthik made an impressive debut, bowling with immaculate control, using the weapons of flight, loop and turn to pose problems for both batsmen.

Neither Gibbs nor Kirsten looked comfortable as the Indians attacked with three round the bat, but they managed to grit it out and seemed set to take the Proteas through to lunch unscathed, when Tendulkar made one of those moves which, if they come off, can make a captain look like a genius.

Karthik had just bowled three maidens on the trot and troubled Gibbs and Kirsten enormously, so it looked a bit dodgy for Tendulkar to take the debutant off and bring himself on. He began with a couple of off breaks to the left hander, then when Gibbs came on strike, switched to leg spin. The bowler floated one up just outside off, Gibbs attempted to paddle, then changed his mind and shaped to push through the slip cordon, and ended up edging for Ganguly to hold at slip, and the Indian skipper had got the breakthrough. Gibbs was scoring at almost a run a ball while the quicks were operating, but once spin took over, his fluency slipped and so did his pace of run-scoring.

>From that point, Kumble took over. Kallis got one from Kumble drifting to leg and put it away to the fence. The next ball was the identical line, and Kallis in his hurry to capitalise on the loose delivery, pushed at it away from body, got the leading edge and silly point held a smart take.

Hansie Cronje is yet to score a run this year in Test cricket. The sequence continued here, as he got one on line of leg stump, turned himself inside out and pushed at it to get the outer edge through to silly point, and Kumble had taken out two in the over.

From a comfortable 90 without loss, South Africa were suddenly 102/3, and their own mental uncertainities did the rest. Murali Karthik, who had done everything during the morning session but get a wicket, compensated immediately after lunch, when he pegged Styrdom down with lots of variation in loop and line, frustrating the batsman. Strydom figured on hitting his way out of trouble, gave Karthik the charge, was beaten for flight and loop and ended up mishitting straight to mid off.

At the other end, Kirsten was waging a grim battle. Quick to put away anything loose, he shrugged off the numerous occasions he was beaten, and hung in there, willing to add to his score a nudge, an edge, at a time. Again, Tendulkar did well to bring himself on, backing his off spin against the two left-handers in the middle at the time. The ploy worked (everything Tendulkar tried seemed to be working, in fact -- makes you wonder whether the relief from tension consequent on deciding to give up the captaincy had anything to do with it?) as Tendulkar floated an off break on line of leg stump, Kirsten tried the paddle and was beaten in flight, played all round it and found the ball curl back in to take out leg stump.

Three balls later, Shaun Pollock was walking back as well. Faced by the right hander, Tendulkar had switched to leg breaks. He bowled one three quarters, making it turn away from the right hander. Pollock, playing the length, went into the pull. As the ball spun away from him, he was forced to drag it around from wide of off, and ended up hitting it down the throat of mid off.

Mark Boucher came out and, despite being as uneasy as his predecessors, hung on for a bit, keeping Klusener company and inching the score forward. Karthik was brought back, and he struck at once, floating one up on off, drawing Boucher forward and turning it enough to find the edge through to Mongia.

Karthik's success, not just in terms of wickets taken but in the way he was bowling, seemed around this point to have a negative impact on Kumble's performance. The Indian leggie appeared to be trying too hard to break through, and as a result strayed too often to leg, getting taken for runs and spoiling what, earlier in the day, were impeccable figures.

At the other end, Karthik bowled with the kind of composure you don't often see in debutants, holding his nerve even when Klusener attempted to disrupt his rhythm, and in fact won the mental battle with the Protean all rounder when time and again, he drew him down the track then forced him to defend after being beaten for loop and flight.

At this point, Tendulkar took off Karthik and brought on Srinath. At the time, in commentary, I remember saying that perhaps the Indian captain was making a mistake -- spin was doing it, and there seemed no obvious reason for bringing back Srinath, who was far from impressive in the morning. Goes to show, I guess, how these things go -- you can second guess the captain all you like, but when the rubber meets the road, he is the guy who makes the decisions, and he probably has good reasons for making them. Sometimes they work, sometimes not -- this was one of the times when it worked to perfection.

Srinath in his very first over was unlucky when a dream delivery, leaving Niky Boje late, found the edge and Mongia, behind the stumps, stood rooted to his spot, not making an effort to go for what was a regulation keeper's catch. In fact, the bowler at the end of the over was seen going over to his keeper and gesticulating angrily, while the rest of the team gathered around obviously trying to cool Srinath down.

In the next over, Srinath went round the wicket, angled one in after swinging wide of the crease on the delivery stride, the ball straightened after pitching, and Klusener, slashing, got the thick edge for Laxman, at second slip, to dive in front of Dravid at first slip and hold a superb two-handed effort.

Immediately thereafter, Srinath held a full length ball back just a bit, got Eksteen pushing down the wrong line and playing too early, to take out middle stump. Back to round the wicket, and a ball bowled from wide of the crease zeroed in on the stumps, Boje played all over it and South Africa, at one point 89 for no loss, had lost 10 wickets for 87 from that point.

That gave India a handy 49 run lead. Joy, though, was short lived. Donald struck in the third over, producing a great lifter from good length, just outside off, and all that Laxman -- surely, by now, into his last lap as opener? -- could do was touch it through to Boucher behind the stumps.

Jaffer looked calm and composed, and handled the short stuff well. His one problem is a tendency to push away from his body when the ball is just outside off -- in the first innings, he had been let off at first slip by Klusener while doing just that. This time round, Klusener made no mistake, latching on to a simple catch as Jaffer poked at a Pollock delivery to end an unimpressive debut in the opening slot.

13/2 and Tendulkar and Dravid were together again, earlier than planned (39/2 in the first innings when they came together). Pollock greeted the Indian captain with two deliveries outside off, and both were imperiously crashed through point and cover for fours. And then Cronje came up with his contribution to the smart captaincy stakes -- he brought himself on and, as in the first innings, immediately got the ball to seam away from the right hander.

Having beaten the bat once with the leg cutter, Cronje then pitched the same line, Tendulkar played for the ball to leave him and raised his bat out of line, covering his stumps with the pad. Cronje, though, had bowled the other one, the ball jagged back off the seam and Tendulkar was gone, hit bang in front of middle not offering a shot.

Ganguly in the first innings had looked tentative. Here, he looked the most authoritative of the batsmen seen on the day, handling pace and spin with equal aplomb and, on one occasion, dancing a long way down the track to take Eksteen on the full and slam him way back into the stands over wide long off.

Intelligent bowling accounted for the Indian vice captain (sure, I know, there are no vice captains when playing at home -- but if you saw the way he was constantly engaged in discussions by Tendulkar, or watched the way he changed the field at times, you were left in no doubt that he is second in command). Pollock, getting no joy bowling to him over the wicket, switched around, got slapped through point for four when he went wide of off, and immediately angled one in, taking it back away from the left hander off the seam. Ganguly shaped to drive, the movement beat the shot and found the edge, and Klusener came up with a good take at slip.

That brought Jadeja -- the mystery man of Indian cricket -- to the crease. And out of there in quick time, as Donald, replacing Cronje, banged one in on line of middle angling to leg, the batsman shaped to flick, the bounce caught the glove and Boucher did the rest.

Rahul Dravid had looked solid while Ganguly was out there, contributing to the flow of runs. Once Ganguly left, he shut shop and, in company of Kumble, saw India through to close at 75/5 -- just 124 ahead with the bulk of the batting back in the hut.

That sets up a war of attrition for day three. For India, every run earned becomes vital. For South Africa, the key here is to bowl India out under 150.

It is not that a score of 200 is tough to chase on this track. The Proteans, though, have already batted themselves into a mental hole against spin -- and as the track takes increasing turn, their worries could only increase. Chasing over 150, thus, is going to take enormous mental strength on the part of the tourists -- Cronje, for one, would much prefer not to have to put his batsmen to that test.


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