Sehwag helps India level series
A resurgent Indian side made most use of a slow, turning pitch at Bangalore and levelled the five-match series at 1-1 with a hard-fought six-wicket win. South Africa, who were thwarted in their bid to stay undefeated in a record 21 successive games, refused to surrender without a scrap but their spirited effort on the field wasn't enough to defend a modest target.
Choosing to bowl first on a surface where the ball often stopped on the batsmen, India capitalised on some injudicious strokeplay by South Africa's top order before the spinners suffocated the rest of the batsmen with guile and rip. The chase to 170 didn't begin too auspiciously, with the openers tied down by some immaculate seam bowling, but a spirited half-century from Virender Sehwag, who batted in the middle order, ensured an emphatic finish.
After being pleasantly surprised by the seamer-friendly surroundings at Hyderabad, South Africa encountered diametrically opposite conditions here. But the capitulation of the top three, all to Irfan Pathan, was largely responsible for their downfall. AB de Villiers spooned a delicious leg-stump half-volley to square leg; Graeme Smith walked right across his stumps and missed a straight one; while Jacques Kallis flashed at one that moved away after pitching short. The trio managed just nine runs between them, and the underbelly of the batting line-up were left to negotiate crafty spin on a pitch fast turning into a flaky dustbowl.
Harbhajan Singh was introduced in the 14th over and the problems he caused with his zip set the tone for the rest of the innings. Ashwell Prince and Andrew Hall, included in the side for the injured Charl Langeveldt, were tied up in all sorts of tangles as every run became a struggle. South Africa soon found themselves in a Test-match situation with close-in fielders lurking and survival, not run-scoring, became imperative. Murali Kartik continued the suffocation act superbly, conceding just 16 runs in his ten overs, while Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh also extracted disconcerting bite from the wicket. Kartik was particularly impressive: summing up the situation perfectly, he hardly bowled a loose delivery, managed four maidens in his spell and was unlucky to see several deliveries comprehensively beat the groping batsmen and go past the edge.
Even the characteristically aggressive Justin Kemp wasn't allowed to free his arms as he and Shaun Pollock settled on rotating the strike and stretching the total. The duo grafted 47 painstaking runs in 16 overs but fell at a time when South Africa needed the critical boost to go from a modest total to a competitive one.
India too found the going tough in the early stages with some disciplined bowling from the faster bowlers, who didn't allow a single run in the first 19 balls, prevented them from getting off to a flier. Pollock led the squeeze operation with an immaculate spell up front, when he induced Sachin Tendulkar into indiscretion, and India were allowed to score only 9 in the first seven overs. Pollock was rewarded for his accuracy when Tendulkar danced down the track and failed to time his loft over mid-on, but Gambhir unclasped the handcuffs.
He backed himself and rode his luck and wasn't afraid to hook and pull. He got away with a top-edged four off Andre Nel early in on and Nel, as his wont, indulged in a few bantering duels. But Gambhir took him on, crashed some superb cover-drives and unleashed a few verbal volleys himself. Along with Pathan, who was promoted to No.3, he ensured that the bowlers weren't allowed to re-establish their stranglehold. Pathan produced a more solid innings, the highlight being the clean straight six off Nel, and there were also some sweetly struck strokes that peppered the square boundaries.
Smith was forced to set some attacking fields and there was nothing he could do when Sehwag entered his crisp striking zone. He stated his intent early on with a slashed four off Johan Botha, the offspinner, and found the sweet spot of the bat on a regular basis. He continued his assault on Botha right till the finish, clattering him for five fours, and was mainly responsible for Justin Ontong being dismissed for 28 in his 2.4 overs. Sehwag helped India race to the finish line with a flurry of fours and displayed the kind of power and timing that had brought him to the limelight on this very ground, nearly four-and-a-half years ago.
AB de Villiers c Harbhajan b Pathan 4 (4 for 1)
Chipped a full ball straight to square leg
Graeme Smith lbw b Pathan 3 (14 for 2)
Walked across the stumps and trapped in front
Jacques Kallis c Dhoni b Pathan 2 (20 for 3)
Flashed at one that seamed away
Andrew Hall c Kaif b Harbhajan 32 (57 for 4)
Flicked an offbreak straight to short leg
Mark Boucher lbw b Sehwag 14 (85 for 5)
Tried to sweep a straight one
Ashwell Prince c Harbhajan b Sehwag 30 (96 for 6)
Skied an attempted loft over midwicket to mid-off
Justin Kemp c RP Singh b Harbhajan 28 (143 for 7)
Swiped to midwicket; RP Singh completed a superb diving catch
Shaun Pollock b Yuvraj 29 (158 for 8)
Missed a straight one while trying to hoick over midwicket
Makhaya Ntini b Agarkar 1 (169 for 9)
Cleaned up by a yorker
Sachin Tendulkar c sub (Peterson) b Pollock 2 (13 for 1)
Danced down the track but failed to clear mid-on
Gautam Gambhir run-out (Ontong) 38 (52 for 2)
Tried to steal a perilous single and beaten by an accurate throw from square leg
Irfan Pathan run-out (Ontong) 37 (105 for 3)
Beaten by a superb direct hit from square leg
Rahul Dravid c and b Ontong 10 (155 for 3)
Tamely patted back one that stopped on him
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo