India v South Africa, 2nd Test, Kolkata, 3rd day November 30, 2004

The attacking intent



Makhaya Ntini led the South African attack on the third day at Kolkata © Getty Images

With the series at stake, South Africa's bowlers summoned up reserves of grit and discipline that they have often lacked in recent forays abroad. Makhaya Ntini led the line magnificently, and spared everyone else a leathering by dismissing a rampaging Virender Sehwag early in the piece. Having been stingy with bouncers over the first seven days of the series, South Africa decided yesterday evening to test Indian technique and resolve with a few well-directed ones, and Sehwag's scintillating innings was cut short by a perfume-ball that Malcolm Marshall would have been proud of.

What followed was an intriguing tussle, with South Africa's pace reserves acquitting themselves admirably against a much-vaunted batting line-up. Zander de Bruyn and Andrew Hall were a revelation, bounding in with tremendous enthusiasm, and bowling a terrific line on a surface where there was little margin for error.

de Bruyn was deceptively quick and he will always cherish that wicket, though Sachin Tendulkar is unlikely to feel too chuffed when he sees the replays. His fallow run since Multan - 104 runs in nine innings, with eight single-digit scores - has generated plenty of heated debate in a country where everyone is an expert, and the innuendo will not go away until he produces a master-class against a worthy side.

But even more impressive than de Bruyn was Hall, whose aggression and pace caused the Indians all sorts of problems. Hall bowled with the sort of spirit you once associated with Fanie de Villiers, though he lacks the subtlety and variation that made that gentle Afrikaaner such a champion in these conditions.

At one point in the afternoon, the giant scoreboard informed you that Shaun Pollock had bowled over 1000 maidens - competition for George Best? - though the statisticians were later found to have counted two maidens too many. His toil today had no pot of gold at rainbow's end, and it's hard to escape the conclusion that his best days are long gone.

Throughout his career, the bowler that Pollock has most often been compared to is Glenn McGrath, but of late, he has lacked McGrath's ability to conjure up a wicket when needed. At times during the third Test at Nagpur, especially when Sachin Tendulkar walked out to bat, McGrath was consistently sending down deliveries at 85mph. Pollock rarely goes over 80, and at this level, those five miles can make all the difference.

Ray Jennings talked afterwards of how little attacking intent he saw from the Indians, and he certainly had a point. With the notable exception of Sehwag - 252 runs from 346 balls - no Indian batsman has been able to dominate a disciplined, yet limited, bowling attack. But for Rahul Dravid's confident start in the morning, and a couple of gorgeous drives from VVS Laxman in the afternoon, there wasn't even so much as a quixotic tilt at windmills.

There was encouragement though in the shape of Dinesh Karthik, who chose the occasion to silence those who doubted whether he could wield a willow in such august company. A straight-drive off Pollock and a reverse-sweep off Justin Ontong were both superbly executed, and he handled both short-pitched bowling and chit-chat with a composure that augurs well for sterner tests ahead.

At some stage tomorrow, he shall have to concentrate on the day job, on a pitch where Anil Kumble - every wicketkeeper's worst nightmare - is sure to be a handful. India won't fancy chasing anything over 120 on an apple-crumble-like pitch on the final day, and Karthik, 20 years old and a veteran of a mere three Tests, will have to perform the dual role to perfection if well-laid plans aren't to go to waste.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.