India v South Africa, 3rd Test, Kanpur, 2nd day April 12, 2008

Ganguly helps India gain slender lead

India 288 for 9 (Ganguly 87, Laxman 50, Morkel 3-57, Steyn 3-60) lead South Africa 265 by 23 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
How they were out

Sourav Ganguly's 87 was the outstanding innings of the day, as India took a 23-run lead with a wicket in hand © Getty Images

In one of the most gripping Tests in recent memory, little could separate India and South Africa as the crumbling pitch at Kanpur produced another enthralling day. Punch followed counter-punch in a match that had all the makings of a classic, and it took a masterful innings from Sourav Ganguly to give India a slender 23-run advantage.

A fizzer of a pitch made way for a gripping encounter, one where nobody could afford to miss even a ball. Just when the bowling side appeared to have sized up the situation, a partnership would thwart them; just when the batsmen appeared to be well set, a snorter of a delivery would upset plans. South Africa's lethal fast bowlers jousted with India's tenacious batting line-up but none could get past Ganguly, who chose the right moment to produce an unforgettable innings.

He walked in a few moments after Morne Morkel had unleashed a most venomous jaffa, one that injured Rahul Dravid before dismissing him. A couple of overs later he watched Morkel nip out Laxman with one that swung in and straightened. This was an uphill task against a potent bowling attack on a spiteful pitch. So composed was Ganguly's response, so assured his shot selection, that it was difficult to believe that he was batting on the same surface.

He cover-drove with assurance and handled - or manhandled - Paul Harris, the left-arm spinner, with a bit of contempt. Harris tried to keep the runs down in between bowling grenades but Ganguly's 39 deliveries against him saw a scoring rate of a run-a-ball. Makhaya Ntini's reverse-swing briefly troubled him but the rapacious pull that he uncorked, towards the end of the day, had the bowler looking on in disbelief.

The nine fours and a six drew the gasps but it was his scampered singles that frustrated the fielders more. There were cheeky moments too - a glide that bisected the slips and a shovel off Harris that soared over midwicket - which left Graeme Smith huffing and puffing. He seemed to have won a mini battle too: a constant look out for the single led to South Africa muffing simple stops in the field.

He shared two vital partnerships. Yuvraj Singh's in-your-face approach put off the bowlers for a while - Dale Steyn was riled up enough to enter into a verbal duel - before Mahendra Singh Dhoni filled the breach. Both sized up the match situation early, hurrying singles and putting away the boundary-balls, but both were responsible for their dismissals - Yuvraj sweeping in the air and Dhoni rushing down the track as if in a last over of an ODI.

Morne Morkel took three top-order wickets with superb deliveries to peg India back © Getty Images
The nature of the surface and the quality of attack made life difficult for the batsmen. Not only did they need to draw on their technical expertise but also show the temperament to forget about what happened before. Virender Sehwag was rooted to the crease to one that came in but it won't be out of place to say that the jaffa that beat him two balls earlier - after hitting a big crack - played on his mind.

Dravid's ability to play late came in handy - a couple of full deliveries were squirted to the third man region for four - and he often took his bottom hand off the bat-handle to prevent a meaty edge. But his 106-ball resistance ended with a lethal ball - one that took off from a good length, clattered the glove and ballooned to gully.

Laxman was more fluent. He struck the fast bowlers crisply - the highlight being the three consecutive fours off Morne Morkel in the 15th over. He had a life on 43, when an edge off Harris eluded Jacques Kallis' grasp at first slip, but he fell after bringing up his half-century when a ripper from Morkel swung in and straightened, knocking back off stump.

India needed a few more lucky breaks - Yuvraj looked plumb when part-time offspinner Hashim Amla trapped him in front, and Ganguly saw Neil McKenzie put down a hard chance when on 40 - but that is exactly the kind of openings a team would look for in such conditions. It's been a game of fractions, and it may well come down to which team blinks first.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at Cricinfo.