India v South Africa, 2nd Test, Kolkata February 13, 2010

Last mile could be the toughest for South Africa

S Aga

Different teams react to pressure in different ways. In the past, South Africa didn't really enjoy being pushed into a corner. When subjected to pressure, they had all the resilience of a can of Castle. Then Perth happened and later, Melbourne. As recently as last month, they demolished England in a game that they had to win to at least share spoils in a series where they had been the better side. Traditionally, India have been just the opposite. Few sides start a series as poorly, and few summon up such memorable performances when least expected.

On the tour of England in 2002, they were routed at Lord's and escaped at Trent Bridge before deciding to bat first in seamer-friendly conditions at Headingley. They won by an innings. After the dramatic last-afternoon collapse and the attendant controversy at Sydney (2008), they went to Perth and ambushed Australia in conditions where they were expected to submit to Australia's four-man pace attack.

A few months later, South Africa humiliated them on a well-grassed surface at Ahmedabad and then won the toss on a pitch never likely to last the distance in Kanpur. But Sourav Ganguly produced a masterful 87 to give India a 60-run lead and the bowlers did the rest. Dale Steyn may have referred to it as a bunsen-burner of a pitch, but it took some especially inept batting to squander the advantage of the toss.

Whenever the Eden Gardens is mentioned, thoughts turn to those unforgettable five days in March 2001. It's easy to forget that that too came after a clinical Australian display in Mumbai, when everyone except Sachin Tendulkar looked utterly out of their depth.

After the crushing win in Nagpur, South Africa's confidence couldn't be higher, and all eyes are on the nature of a pitch that the curator has insisted won't be dictated by home interest. The last time these two teams played in Kolkata, Graeme Smith was amazed by the reception that his team got during an utterly one-sided 10-wicket victory. That one-day game had come soon after the Greg Chappell-Sourav Ganguly spat and with Kolkata's golden boy sidelined, the Indian players muttered afterwards of how they'd felt like the away side.

The South Africans shouldn't expect such backing this time, but with capacity reduced to half because of renovations, they also won't have to confront the intimidating atmosphere that made even grizzled Australian veterans quail back in 2001. With the Test starting on a Sunday though, expect plenty of noise each time a wicket falls or a four is hit.

South Africa won by a mammoth 329 runs back in 1996, but were on the wrong end of a Harbhajan Singh special in 2004. A Jacques Kallis-century had held the first innings together but with India having built a significant lead, the close-in fields and sharp turn were too much to handle. Smith and Kallis offered stout resistance but having found his rhythm, Harbhajan was unstoppable.

In Steyn, they have the best bowler in the world. Kallis is the best allrounder since Imran Khan. This really does look like a team whose time has come. Just don't write off India, who have a habit of scaling great heights from subterranean depths

He will once again be a central figure, especially after all the questions raised about his form and lack of effectiveness in Nagpur. He has 38 wickets from his six Tests at Eden Gardens, but India will need to catch much better than they did in the first Test if that tally is to be enhanced. With Kallis and Hashim Amla in prime form, and Smith unlikely to go a full series without playing a big innings, India need to latch on to every chance that comes their way.

With the winter cold still to disappear completely, the pace bowlers will certainly enjoy the conditions, and that should persuade India to break with tradition and go with three pace bowlers. With Zaheer Khan now undoubtedly the best bowler in the line-up, spin isn't the weapon it once was. If Harbhajan needs support, there's always Virender Sehwag to bowl some overs of canny offspin.

If India are to find a route back into the series though, there's little doubt that the principal protagonists are the men at the top of the order. When Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir score, they do so at such a pace that even the biggest threats - Mendis and Murali in Galle in 2008 - are neutralised. Gambhir had his first poor Test in ages at Nagpur, while Sehwag alone handled Steyn with any confidence at the first time of asking. How they combine here will decide India's fate.

South Africa were 2-0 winners back in 2000, but in 1996, 2004 and 2008, they found the last Test of the series a bridge too far. Smith insists that things have changed, that this is a more battle-hardened outfit. In Steyn, they have the best bowler in the world. Kallis is the best allrounder since Imran Khan. This really does look like a team whose time has come. Just don't write off India, who have a habit of scaling great heights from subterranean depths.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Sri on February 18, 2010, 11:14 GMT

    Hehhh, hindsight is 20-20. Look at all the previous comments to see how wrong they were. Currently in the endgame, SA has caved in !!

  • babai on February 14, 2010, 4:32 GMT

    Ojha I feel is much better choice compared to Amit Mishra.. Mishra right now doesn't deserver a place.. Bhajji is too class bowler to be left out.. he is still a world class wicket taker... Ishant sharma is really disapponting.. he has loads of potential.. but!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Anit on February 14, 2010, 0:48 GMT

    It will be tough for this Indian team to equal the series with having to face Steyn. The Indian bowling and fielding is weak. Bhajji is a spent force. On Indian conditions the medium pacers will be hard pressed to be effective. There are no real fast option. Ishant has become pedestrian.

  • Srijan on February 13, 2010, 22:06 GMT

    Just give ganguly a call.. he'll do all right yet i guess :)

  • K on February 13, 2010, 19:56 GMT

    Dont see how India can level the series. They just dont have the fire power.

    Tendulkar, with all due respect, doesnt impose himself on the opposition bowlers anymore. He shows determination but doesnt show dominance. His role should be to soften up the pace bowlers and tire them through counter-attacks so the juniors can thrive.

    Lets face it, Steyn and Morkel are quite a handful for passive India.

  • Liontamer on February 13, 2010, 18:25 GMT

    The main reason India lost the first test is because they played negative cricket. Even though we saw centuries from Sehwag and Tendulkar at Nagpur, Indian batsmen threw away their wickets playing defensive cricket more than anything else. Steyn's swing bowling is a threat and Harris's negative bowling tactics can be frustrating, but only if you let them get to your head. In reality they are no more a threat than what we saw with the Aussies. The best way to beat SA, is to change our defensive attitude and really go after them like we did with the Aussies. Forget the world #1 ranking, put on your underdog cap and hunt them down. Do I smell an whopping in store for SA at The Gardens. You bet your #@!$...! Amen.

  • Manasvi on February 13, 2010, 17:09 GMT

    Well, the Indian batting MUST fire. The reason why we briefly became No.1 is because our batting. Our bowling is very ordinary and the best way to pick up wickets is by putting up lots of runs on board. In order to do that, the right batting lineup in the right positions is required. And a 3 pace attack would be better. But since Ishant is in such pathetic form, better to bring in Ojha and have 2 spinners. Ojha can and must do a Paul Harris by bowling into the rough with a negative line. And Sehwag's bowling will be as crucial as his batting since he has the promise to become India's 5th bowler.

  • Ashok on February 13, 2010, 16:37 GMT

    India's strength is batting. The Selectors lost their way by selecting a squad of just 6 batsmen. This cost India the first test. For the second test, Dravid is still not available. So there is still a hole in the top 5 of Indian batting. But at least 4 of the top 5 are available for the second test. If Gambhir & Sehwag give India a flying start, as they usually do, then watch out SA. Steyn & Morkel will come down to ground level once more. This is the key to India winning the second test. The second point is that the middle order led by VVS & Sachin must produce. Thirdly Dhoni and 2 other bats, problably Karthick & Raina must build on the top 4 batsmen's performance. True India does not have match winning bowling. But if SA face a huge first innings total of 600, it will have an uphill task even with relatively weak Indian bowling.Zaheer, if he gets support from Ishant & Harbhajan, can be just as lethal as Steyn was in the first test. So India still has a chance to come back.

  • Dummy4 on February 13, 2010, 16:10 GMT

    first dey have to beat delhi daredevils only dan no 1!!!!!

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