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The Bulletin by Siddhartha Vaidyanathan
April 11, 2008
It took nine days for the series to finally witness an absorbing battle between bat and ball. While Chennai produced a featherbed and Ahmedabad saw a track with generous sprinklings of green, Kanpur laid out a crackling surface that assisted turn. South Africa made the most of winning the toss, grinding out 265 at the end of a tense first day, but India's spinners, with some good support from Ishant Sharma, ensured they remained in the hunt.
A bone-dry pitch with conspicuous cracks gradually deteriorated through the day. Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla thrived when conditions were best for batting, steering South Africa to 152 for 1, before India clawed their way back through turn and bounce. Seven of the ten wickets fell to spinners, both specialist and part-time, but plucky contributions from the lower order stretched the score past 250. With the ball stopping on the batsmen, and a few starting to stay low, it could well turn into a match-winning total.
South Africa ensured they didn't miss out on scoring opportunities. Smith led the early charge and the plucky duo of AB de Villiers and Mark Boucher made valuable contributions down the order. None of the batsmen were completely assured at the crease - they survived vociferous appeals every once in a while and the ball regularly beat the outside edge - but made sure they scored at a healthy clip.
India's shoddy fielding hurt them, as did their inability to sustain pressure. Barring Harbhajan Singh, who was miserly throughout the day, the rest regularly doled out loose deliveries that allowed the batsmen to break free. Both Piyush Chawla, in his second Test, and Ishant struggled with their accuracy and a number of misfields only hurt them further. How Anil Kumble would have wished to be out in the middle rather than nursing a groin injury back in the dressing room.
Kumble's absence, for the first time since December 2003, meant that Mahendra Singh Dhoni became the first wicketkeeper to captain India. He didn't have a great start, though, losing the toss and then watching his faster bowlers squander the new ball. Sreesanth had a perilously close lbw appeal turned down in the fourth ball of the match - against Neil McKenzie, who shouldered arms to one that came in - but didn't go on to make the batsmen play enough. Ishant's first six overs cost 35 and allowed South Africa's openers to lay a solid base.
The spinners, though, had most of the say. Chawla created the first breakthrough, beating McKenzie in flight and luring him out of the crease, while Yuvraj foxed Smith with one that fizzed off the surface. It was a crucial wicket, especially because of the confidence with which Smith was handling the spinners. He appeared to have sussed up the situation perfectly - clattering the loose balls and showing the temperament to overcome the nervy moments. Along with Amla, who milked the spinners with wristy manoeuvres, he was threatening to take the game away.
Yuvraj, though, should have had Smith with his very first ball, when the batsman was on 50. Turning one across Smith, he caught him on the shuffle with a ball that would have gone on to rattle leg stump. Undeterred with the decision, Yuvraj struck a few overs later and triggered a mini-collapse - Amla, who had added 91 with Smith, was undone by Ishant's reverse-swing, deflecting a pacy ball onto his stumps, and Kallis lasted only seven balls, playing on to the stumps to Harbhajan.
The rest of the day was a cat-and-mouse battle - South Africa's middle order snaffling runs at the slightest chance, the spinners beating the bat, appeals flying and puffs of dust appearing on the pitch. Ashwell Prince was bogged down by 21 dot balls in a row while de Villiers refused to be tied down, doing his best to use his feet against the spinners. Boucher held the lower order together - with Morne Morkel and Harris chipping in - but just when he appeared to shut India out, the bowlers mopped up the tail. Harbhajan ended with 3 for 52 in a marathon 32-over effort but on another day, with more luck, he could have easily doubled the wickets tally.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is an assistant editor at CricinfoFeeds: Siddhartha Vaidyanathan
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