Sehwag plunders fastest triple ever
A breathtaking triple-century from Virender Sehwag, by far the fastest in terms of balls faced (278), was the centrepiece as India utterly dominated proceedings on the third day at the MA Chidambaram Stadium. Sehwag scored 257 runs in the day, finishing it on 309, the same score he made at Multan back in 2004. The fusillade of strokes produced 108 runs between lunch and tea, and he shared in two double-hundred stands for the first two wickets, another record.
After Wasim Jaffer had contributed 73 to an opening stand of 213, Rahul Dravid turned the strike over cleverly as the bowling was ground into the Chennai dust. By stumps, the partnership was worth 255, and Sehwag's heroics had opened up the possibility of a result on the final day. Though South Africa finished five overs short of the 90 that they were supposed to bowl in the day, India still managed a staggering 386 runs.
The five frontline bowlers toiled away with no reward on an unforgiving pitch and by stumps a couple of them were looking a little shell-shocked and dispirited. Sehwag took just 78 balls for his second hundred, and 84 for the third, and by then any illusion of a contest between bat and ball had long since been shattered.
South Africa couldn't be faulted for commitment, and their fielding was always tidy, but there was simply nothing in the pitch or atmosphere to inspire a breakthrough. Makhaya Ntini was given a proper pasting and the raw pace of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel was similarly ineffectual against a batsman at the top of his game. Paul Harris wheeled away for several long spells but though there was the odd lull, Sehwag cover-drove, paddl- swept and reverse-swept with impunity when the chance presented itself.
Dravid started very slowly, but he too grew in confidence as the day wore on, playing some lovely strokes on the leg side as the bowlers started to err in line. His 50 took him 151 balls, but such was Sehwag's mastery over proceedings that the partnership run-rate was nearly five an over.
A huge straight six off Harris took Sehwag to 297, and a tuck off the pads off Ntini soon after got him to 300. The crowd, nearly 30,000, went berserk and everyone in the dressing room was on their feet. With the over-rate so sluggish and Sehwag so intimidating, Smith didn't even take the second new ball, opting to fill in overs with the likes of Ashwell Prince.
Harris had the only success of the day, snaring Jaffer after switching to round the wicket. Jaffer's had been the perfect anchor role, and when he flirted at one outside off stump that actually turned a little, Jacques Kallis took a fine catch low at slip. His departure didn't faze Sehwag in the slightest though. Morkel was taken for 13 in an over, and Harris too suffered a similar fate as he cruised into the 190s.
A massive six over long leg off Ntini took him to 199 and a ball later, a twirl of the wrists sent the ball speeding through midwicket. At the other end, Dravid needed to do no more than pinch the odd single, and Sehwag went in for a cup of tea after having flayed Ntini for a six and two fours in the final over of the session. It was his tenth successive hundred in excess of 150, an unprecedented feat, and it must have made the selectors who dropped him from the Test side cringe more than a little.
India had started the day as though they meant business, with Jaffer pulling Ntini for four, and Smith was soon forced into an early change. Steyn bowled at lively pace, but the pick of the bowlers was Morkel, who sent a couple of deliveries thudding through at express pace and beat the outside edge more than once. But apart from a Jaffer edge that fell well short of Mark Boucher, there weren't even half-chances to encourage the bowlers. Jaffer eventually got to his 50 from 107 balls, more than content to paddle in Sehwag's wake.
Harris came on after an hour and his tactics against Sehwag were simple - just drop the ball on a length well outside leg stump. Sehwag was content to ignore most of them, though on occasion he did make room to drive forcefully through the off side. There was also a powerful reverse-sweep that sped behind point for four.
The century was raised in typically thrilling fashion. Having slammed Kallis over midwicket to get to 99, he then lofted him straight back over his head to get to three figures. It had taken him just 116 balls, and it reduced South Africa to seeking damage control rather than wickets. Once again, Sehwag's greatest strength, his ability to put away both the bad and not-so-bad balls, was in ample evidence.
A couple of balls from Harris did seem to unleash puffs of dust from the pitch, a development that would have been watched with keen interest by Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. That, though, is in the future, with India seemingly intent on batting well into the fourth day. As long as Sehwag is out there, the possibilities are limitless.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo