India need top-order answers
On a pitch that rewards accurate and intelligent pace bowling, the Indians should still go on and win this match. But success won't be able to deflect attention from the continued inability of the top-order batsmen to put decent scores on the board. Once again, the Indian batting against the new ball was wretched, with Alfonso Thomas doing what Morne Morkel had on Thursday, and only a stolid effort from VVS Laxman prevented an embarrassing capitulation before stumps.
The first five wickets in both innings added just 124 runs, less than Irfan Pathan's tally from No.7. Wasim Jaffer didn't trouble the scorers, Virender Sehwag aggregated 10, and Sachin Tendulkar 22. Laxman couldn't build on starts in both innings, while Sourav Ganguly's marvellous first-innings effort was sullied somewhat by the nature of his dismissal on Friday. And against a bowling line-up that seldom allowed him to free his arms and crash the ball around, Mahendra Singh Dhoni also offered no solace, picking up just 22 from his two innings.
As Alfonso Thomas said later at the press conference, the pitch has certainly aided the quicker bowlers, but it certainly hasn't been unplayable. "They played too loose," he said, when asked if he had been surprised by the top-order capitulation in both innings. "It's the sort of pitch where you need to bat time. Once you get set, you can score some runs." Thomas, who played here for three years before moving on to Centurion and the Titans, knows the surface better than most, and he used that knowledge to great effect in picking up 5 for 32 in the Indian second innings.
Zaheer Khan defended the batsmen, saying that they had done wonderfully well as a unit to get to 316 on a pitch where Rest of South Africa folded for 138. But take away the 139 that Pathan and Ganguly added on the opening afternoon, and you're left with a far less appealing picture. It also can't be denied that the Indians had by far the better of the batting conditions on day two, with sunshine replacing the grey skies that had overseen Rest of South Africa's mediocre batting effort.
With the opening Test only a week away, the opening conundrum will vex the Indians the most. Rahul Dravid spoke yesterday of how it was essential to get off to a good start against the Kookaburra ball, which becomes a far less lethal proposition once it loses its shine. But in each innings, the Indians were four down by the 21st over, leaving the lower-order batsmen to bail out a badly listing ship.
Sehwag has been a sitting duck to the full ball that nips back a shade for months now, and Tendulkar has issues of his own to work out. With Jaffer also struggling to replicate his displays against England and West Indies, there's a real fear that the batting will be overly reliant on Laxman and Rahul Dravid, with Ganguly providing the X-factor.
Thomas, Morne Morkel, Friedel de Wet and Nantie Hayward have bowled superbly as a unit in this game, but a huge gulf in class and experience separates them from the quintet of Ntini, Steyn, Pollock, Nel and Kallis that the Indians will face at the Wanderers. The opportunity for time in the middle has been wastefully squandered, and they can only hope that the net sessions leading up to the Test imbue the top order with some measure of the confidence that hasn't been in evidence at all on this tour.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo