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March 4, 2000


India Down Under
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India face uphill battle

Prem Panicker

South Africa, rather unexpectedly, choose to bat out the day rather than apply a closure. And ended play on day three, 314 ahead on the first innings with Mark Boucher and Allan Donald at the crease, and Nantie Howard to follow.

By not applying the closure at the fall of Jacques Kallis' wicket, South Africa could, unwittingly, have done India a favour. When Kallis fell, the 5th batsman in the top six to go past the 50, the second to go past 90 and fail to reach the 100, the score read 441/6. Hansie Cronje, Shaun Pollock, Mark Boucher and Allan Donald batted out a further 17 overs, never looking quite convincing, and added 31 more to the total -- 31 runs that in context of the game situation didn't mean much anyway.

Made one wonder what the situation would have been had SA applied the closure and sent down 10, 12 overs at the tired Indians towards close on the day. A wicket? Two? And the rest of the night for the remaining batsmen to stew under the pressure?

The counter argument could be that South Africa are sitting in a pretty situation, knowing that they have ensured that they have won this series (this game can go only one of two ways, either a South African win or a more unlikely draw), and can therefore afford to grind the opposition down.

In any case, that is how the game stood at the end of day three. A day on which, for the most part, nothing went the way of the fielding side.

Play started with Cullinan slashing Srinath just wide of Azhar at second slip in the first over of the day, and getting to his 50 with a fortuitous four -- a birthday gift for the man who turned 33 on the day. Cullinan, still batting with Niky Boje as runner, didn't last long however, pushing away from his body at a fullish length ball from Kumble for Wasim Jaffer at short square leg to show good presence of mind. The ball was lobbing high overhead, there was little chance of him grasping it, so Jaffer jumped, palmed the ball up, then grabbed it as it came back down.

South Africa effected a tactical change in the batting lineup -- and in the process, showed the value of backroom strategy. Having noticed that the Indian spinners, especially Kumble the spearhead, was having problems bowling to left-handers, South Africa promoted Lance Klusener ahead of Hansie Cronje in the batting lineup. And Klusener, after a rather tempestuous beginning marked by some neck or nothing swipes at the spinners, settled into the pure batsman's role, to blunt the Indian attack with a combination of patient defence and full-blooded strokeplay while Jacques Kallis, for the second day running, displayed incredible application in keeping his end going.

The morning session belonged entirely to the batting side, despite the loss of Cullinan. 90 runs were put up, the scoring speed was brisk, and India was increasingly forced on the defensive. Adding to the fielding side's woes were the fact that neither Chopra nor Karthik hit their straps, with the result that Kumble went largely unsupported.

Post lunch play brought about a change, in the bowling of Karthik. And, more to the point, in the way Tendulkar handled the young left arm spinner. In the morning session, Sachin was seen talking to Karthik after virtually every ball, and the result was a confused, uncertain display. Worse, after Klusener thumped him for a couple of fours, the Indian think tank out in the middle reverted to the ploy of using Karthik as a defensive bowler, having him go over the wicket and pitch well outside leg stump.

Post lunch, the youngster was given his head, and allowed to bowl without constant advice. And at once, he slipped into a lovely line and length and began troubling the batsmen with changes in angle, loop, flight and lots of turn. And Kumble at the other end, finding some support for once, promptly hit his own rhythm and batting suddenly looked a lot more difficult.

Umpire Russell Tiffin, who had a pretty ordinary day today, made the first of three glaring errors when Klusener, with his personal score on 35, touched an off break from Tendulkar through to Mongia behind the stumps. The appeal was turned down, and the batsman had a reprieve.

20 runs later, Karthik decieved Kallis with a lovely arm ball that shot through straight outside off, took the thick inner edge, and Mongia, standing far too erect, failed to get down in time to take the low chance. The score then, 351/4.

Karthik again, looping one in from wide of the crease, then turning it back away from the right-handed Kallis, found the high part of the bat for a clear edge through to the keeper. Huge appeal, and Tiffin yet again failed to give the decision, despite the very clear edge. Score at the time, 375/4.

The spell between lunch and tea finally saw an even contest between bat and ball, and the Indians were desperately unlucky to see the breaks going against them during this period. The tight bowling continued after the break, and with both batsmen in sight of their individual hundreds, the pressure of playing out consequtive maidens finally told on their nerve, leading to two quick wickets.

Lance Klusener had been cruising along quite nicely till Kumble and Karthik got together in that partnership with the ball. Finding himself suddenly shackled, Klusener countered with patient pushes and prods, waiting for the error. But as the overs went by and the bowlers kept their line, the hard-hitting all-rounder's patience gave out, he came dancing down to Karthik, failed to get to the pitch as the ball looped and dropped in front of him, and mishit the attempted drive to mid off, falling at the personal score of 97 and the team score of 435/5. Karthik had deserved that success all afternoon, and when it came, it was due reward for a young bowler who, in an increasingly hopeless situation, had refused to buckle under, kept his nerve and stuck to his job.

In the next over, it was Kallis' turn to walk back. Like Klusener, he had been at the receiving end of some very tight bowling. Unlike Klusener, patience was his forte. However, the departure of his partner in a 164-run 5th wicket partnership appeared to have impacted on his monumental concentration. Kumble bowled a quick one on leg and middle, Kallis for once pushed with bat well in front of pad, and the inside edge took the pad through to silly point. Rather interestingly, despite a vociferous appeal, umpire Tiffin kept his hands at his sides until Kallis himself began walking.

The wicket incidentally was number 50 for Kumble against RSA, and marked his 16th 5-wicket haul (his 12th on Indian soil). Though this column has had critical things to say of the leg spinner over the years, one thing needs mentioning on the credit side of the ledger -- Kumble with the ball is tireless. On the day, he bowled a good 33 overs, over 1/3rd of the total quota of 90, and never once did he show any sign of flagging, a laudable feat of endurance, made more praiseworthy by the fact that in the first session he bowled without any support from the other end.

Karthik by then seemed to be oozing confidence, and after tormenting Pollock with a series of deliveries that drew him forward and beat the outer edge, the left arm spinner finally got his man when he flighted one up, made it dip and Pollock, lured into driving, mishit to mid on.

At the other end, Srinath had been brought on to bowl to Hansie Cronje, who doesn't seem to like the short ball too much (rather surprising for a South African batsman who practises on those faster wickets, against the best new ball attack in the world today). Srinath dug one in and thudded it into the Protean skipper's rib cage, then pushed him further back with a couple more short-pitched ones, and had his man when he switched to the fuller length, Cronje expecting the short length ball, reading the altered length too late and vaguely pushing at it to be bowled middle stump, through the gate. A couple of overs earlier, Cronje had launched into a huge sweep, missed completely and been rapped on the pad in front of the stumps -- another decision that went against the fielding side.

Boucher and Donald then saw the rest of play through, taking SA in at the end of day three with 472/8 on the board.

The day easily belonged to Kallis and Klusener with the bat. There was application, thought, and calm good sense in their association. Both batsmen were willing to play the waiting game, circumspect against the good deliveries, and ruthless in putting away the least errors in length and line. The two ran away with the honours in the first session, and produced a fascinating duel with Karthik and Kumble in the second.

It's been a while since this Indian batting lineup came close to putting 300 on the board in an innings. And yet, assuming they get the two tail end wickets out quickly on the morning of day four, they will have to do just that simply in order to stave off an innings defeat. And even in theories spun on the loom of wild optimism, there is no possible scenario for the home side to force a win from this point on -- a situation they can blame on their ineptitude in the first innings.

So what remains? To play for pride, to fight back with the bat in a bid to save another ignominous defeat.

Pride, though, has not been much in evidence in the team's performances in recent outings -- what are the odds that it will be display as the batsmen go out for the last time under Tendulkar's captaincy, for the last Test innings of the season?


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