Cracking contest on a cracking pitch
This could have well been the early 1990s, at any Indian venue, on the fourth day of a Test match. Except that this was the first day. Every time the batsmen moved their feet, they took away a part of the top of the surface in a puff of dust. There were small mercies, though: the pitch wasn't physically dangerous for the batsmen, and the outfield was lightning quick. It is the sort of pitch where batsmen can never feel entirely at ease. No matter how impeccable their defence, no matter how long they have batted, no matter how many they have scored, it can't prepare them for deliveries that bounce calf-high immediately after one has gripped and kicked.
Despite all this, the pitch provided the first even contest of the series, after the first Test had been utterly dominated by the bat, and the second by the South Africans. Here, you could afford to take your eyes off the game only at the risk of missing a wicked delivery or a crisp shot to the boundary. South Africa looked like they could run away to a big score in the first half of the day, but the Indian bowlers learned quickly, corrected the mistakes they made earlier, and pulled South Africa down to what looks like just short of the par score in this match.
To start off with, the South African batsmen were not as hopeless on this dustbowl as most of the touring sides in the 90s used to be. The top three worked on the principle of cashing in on any scoring opportunity that came their way before the eventual unplayable ball arrived. And in the early overs, the Indian medium-pacers provided them with quite a few bad balls to put away.
The good work from Graeme Smith started at the toss, which meant the visitors wouldn't be batting fourth in the match. He continued the job with the bat, in partnerships with Neil McKenzie and Hashim Amla. Sreesanth and Ishant Sharma were generous in the morning, and Smith and Neil McKenzie feasted. They made sure they got well forward, negating the lbws to the ones that kept low. For their part, Sreesanth and Ishant didn't bowl in areas from where the low bounce could have bothered the batsmen.
|South Africa have three fast bowlers who can bowl consistently with pace, and who have been practising bowling within the stumps ever since they saw the track, which ironically might produce the best contest of the series|
When the spinners came on, the South Africans smartly changed tactics. They stayed back, played late, and before that moment of indiscretion where McKenzie charged down the track to Piyush Chawla, they put panic in the Indian ranks.
"If I can bowl, I'll play," Anil Kumble had said on Thursday. How India would have wished he could bowl. In his absence, Harbhajan Singh kept the batsmen on a leash all the time, but at the other end the bowlers did not keep up the pressure for much of the day. For years India have been facing the tough question "who after Kumble?", without any answers; with him missing only his seventh home Test of his career, they faced that question again, and the answer wasn't satisfactory. Chawla, who went for more than four an over in his 16, would know he could have done better, despite having taken wickets in the first overs of both spells. When he comes back to bowl the next time, he will need to ensure India miss Kumble a little less. Ishant, though, came back to bowl testing spells. Much more accurate with the older ball, he bowled at a good pace, making sure the low bounce bothered the batsmen.
Ishant's performance is something South Africa will take heart from: they have three fast bowlers who can bowl consistently with pace, and who have been practising bowling within the stumps ever since they saw the track, which ironically could end up producing the best contest of the series.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo