'We're going to give it our best shot' - Kirsten
South Africa believe that they have the fast bowlers to exploit early-morning swing and make inroads into an Indian line-up missing two old hands. India, with less than a 4% chance to win the game according to Cricinfo's new Hawkeye tool, believe that they're far from out of the contest. Recent cricket history supports that belief. In this age of placid pitches and high scoring-rates, even a total in excess of 550 is no insurance against defeat. You only have to look at two Adelaide Tests played this decade to know that.
On the first occasion, in 2003, Australia rattled up 556 at a cracking pace and still lost by four wickets, with Rahul Dravid spending 835 minutes at the crease for his 305 runs. Three years later, Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen added 310 as England made 551 for 6 before declaring. Their scoring rate was very similar to Australia's in Nagpur (3.27 run an over) and few believed that they could lose when Australia slumped to 65 for 3. But then Ashley Giles dropped Ricky Ponting, Australia's middle order dug in, and Shane Warne rediscovered his mojo on an enthralling final day.
Some cricketers claim to ignore historical precedents, but there's little doubt that such matches influence future actions. How many more times might the follow-on have been enforced in Tests this decade if not for the Dravid-Laxman show at the Eden Gardens in 2001? How much earlier might South Africa have declared on Sunday if not for memories of Chennai in 2008 when Virender Sehwag scoffed at a first-innings score of 540?
The South Africans hold all the aces for the moment, but India will be well aware that four sessions of diligent and committed batting will ruffle more than a few feathers on a pitch that will see the ball turn more and more as the game progresses. "We're going to give it our best shot," said coach Gary Kirsten at the end of the second day's play. "We need to go bat well. A couple of guys are going to have to apply themselves and get big scores. We know we're capable of doing that."
Dravid, the granite plinth on which most famous Indian wins have been built, is not around, and neither is Laxman, who bats so well in tandem. But Kirsten remained quietly confident that a suddenly callow batting order can get the job done. "You've got two batsmen who've played over a 100 Tests, so obviously you're going to miss that experience," he said. "But I'd think it's a great opportunity for the likes of [Murali] Vijay and [S] Badrinath to come in and do something. They're both quality players. It's an opportunity for them to come in against a top-ranked international team and show what they're made of."
The bowlers will certainly hope that they can put their tired feet up for a day and more after nearly two days of largely luckless toil. At Adelaide in 2006, Warne bowled 53 overs in the first innings, with just the wicket of Geraint Jones to show for it. Amit Mishra bowled the same number of overs in Nagpur, with nothing to show for a succession of leg breaks that turned prodigiously, perhaps too much to take the edge.
"From 291 for 2, we either needed to get wickets or we needed to keep the run-rate down," said Kirsten. "We weren't getting that many wickets, so we were happy to keep the rate down to a reasonable level. I thought the guys bowled their hearts out. It's not an easy wicket to bowl on. I thought Mishra bowled really well for no wicket. He went past the outside edge I don't know how many times. You have days like that when you don't really get the result that you want."
Kirsten also refused to buy into criticism of Harbhajan Singh, who was the most expensive bowler on view, managing just one maiden in his 46 overs. "I thought Harbhajan's rhythm today was fantastic," he said. "He was a little unlucky at certain times. On the South African side, with Kallis and Amla, they batted exceptionally well. We just look at what we can do. If the batting on the other side is really good, you have to acknowledge that. From 6 for 2, two guys applied themselves and did a fantastic job."
All three spinners managed to get sharp, albeit slow, turn at times, and the bowlers' footmarks will undoubtedly interest Paul Harris, who didn't have the best of series against England. JP Duminy's offspin could also be a factor as India seek to get within range of a huge total. "I think it's taking some turn," said Kirsten. "But as the South African batsmen showed, it didn't look like it was out of hand. It's up to us to go out and bat as well as we can.
"At this stage, it doesn't look as though it's doing too much. We did see balls that turned a fair amount. I think we expected that it was going to start turning at some point."
That last remark was accompanied by a wry smile, though there was no humour on view when he was questioned about the squad-selection mess that left India with Wriddhiman Saha as their No.7 batsman. "You can ask the selection that question," he said curtly, and was just as brusque when asked about Laxman's late withdrawal. "He was not match fit. He could hit some balls, but it was a decision taken by the management and him that he wasn't ready for a Test match."
With the specialist bowlers having shared such a heavy workload, there were queries about the wisdom of a four-man attack that ignored that India simply don't have the allrounder needed to risk a five-bowler strategy. "In the last 15 or so Test matches, we haven't played a fifth bowler, except for the one Test in Bangladesh," said Kirsten. "We've got a pretty good record without a fifth bowler."
That record and MS Dhoni's charmed run as captain - seven wins and no defeats in 11 games - will be subjected to intense scrutiny over the next three days. But with Sehwag having been part of huge opening stands in India's last two home Tests, hope floats. If he can produce another defining innings, at a rate that no other batsman on the planet can come close to matching, there'll be more than a few nerves in the South African dressing room, no matter what the scoreboard and cricketing logic say.