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.