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The Bulletin by Sidharth Monga
February 14, 2010
They must have read about it. They must have heard about it. They must have planned for it. Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla have played a Test there before. Nothing, though, can be preparation enough for an Indian comeback from the dead at Eden Gardens.
On Sunday, South Africa met the devil himself, and didn't know what to do. They had reached 218 for 1 in 58 overs, via assured and quick centuries from Amla and debutant Alviro Petersen, when the famous Eden Gardens turnaround began. Eight wickets fell for 43 runs, Harbhajan Singh took three in two overs, VVS Laxman ran from first slip to short fine leg to take a catch, the crowd seemingly intimidated the batsmen, two of the middle-order batsmen just froze, AB de Villiers ran himself out, Zaheer Khan hit with a pick-up-and-throw, and the batsmen forgot about scoring runs.
And, by the way, there were only about 35,000 present in the ground because half the stands have been brought down for renovation. And it was virtually a two-man attack, with Ishant Sharma and Amit Mishra looking innocuous for most of the day. And Amla and Petersen had all but beaten the hapless looking fielding unit into submission.
Parallels with The Test were inescapable. Australia had pummelled India in Mumbai back in 2000-01, much like South Africa did in Nagpur. Australia had reached 193 for 1 in Kolkata when the Harbhajan show began with the wicket of Matthew Hayden.
Today, though, it was Zaheer who started the magic. Ishant had just bowled a spell full of bouncers in the afternoon, hitting Amla - not out on 100-plus - on the arm guard once, but had overdone the short stuff. Zaheer, though, got the wickets, dismissing a centurion either side of tea. He did Petersen in with slight seam movement away from off, and then got a top edge from Amla. Two wickets for 11 runs, game on again.
Harbhajan, who had got drift and bounce, looked better than he did in Nagpur, and had Amla dropped when on 60, could now sense it. He tossed the ball up nicely, got dip and drift, Kallis and de Villiers tried to hit him off rhythm by lofting him for straight boundaries. Harbhajan kept at it, didn't fire deliveries into the pads, didn't overdo doosras. Only six times he pitched on middle and leg to the right-hand batsmen, that too when bowling from round the stumps.
The breakthrough finally came when Kallis looked to slog-sweep him, and top-edged a sharp topspinner. It went high towards short fine leg, Laxman - a dropped sitter in his account already - ran back from slip and made this blinder. Harbhajan held arms aloft, gestured towards the crowd, and they responded. They were going to be the 12th man now.
In his next over, Harbhajan got Ashwell Prince, back in the middle order but still low on confidence. This was no magic delivery, just a straight topspinner, and Prince played for the big offbreak. Harbhajan knew he had got him when he appealed, ran straight towards the boundary, and sent the crowd into delirium. The crowd fed off Harbhajan, Harbhajan fed off the crowd. JP Duminy should have known better than playing for an offbreak, instead he got Harbhajan's ball of the day. Drifting, dipping, going straight with the arm, and getting another plumb lbw. Dale Steyn survived the hat-trick, but the day had turned.
In the next over, de Villiers wanted a single and the strike, Steyn reckoned there was no need to panic, and sent him back. Zaheer ran in from mid-off to cover, picked up and threw in one motion, and found de Villiers short. Ishant and Mishra came back too, getting their first wickets of the series, in their 43rd and 71st overs of the series. Sitting inside the dressing room, Petersen must have wondered just what had happened to what was supposed to be his day.
After the early fall of Graeme Smith, both Petersen and Amla batted with clarity of thought that sets apart teams that are ahead in a contest. Amla began as if 253 not out overnight, and took his tally to 367 runs in the series before he got out. Petersen, a late bloomer in first-class cricket, took little time to get into his stride and became only the third South African to score a century on Test debut.
Both of them counterattacked - without fuss, without manic hitting, without needing to go in the air - bringing up the 100 in 20 overs, hitting 17 boundaries in that period. Ten of those came from Petersen, who was composed and decisive in his footwork.
Petersen's plan revolved around the front foot: press forward whenever possible, defend if the line is good, and go for runs if it is either too wide or too straight. No runs down the ground, four flicks for boundaries, and two gorgeous cover-drives worked fine for him in the first half of his effort, after which he became more circumspect and let Amla lead the scoring.
The first ball Amla faced, he moved across to Zaheer, and eased an accurate delivery past square leg for two - not much power, just good timing. The two gorgeous cover-drives he played early on in the innings, one each against Zaheer and Ishant, put him into the high strike-rate mode too. Throughout his effort Amla confidently whipped from in front of stumps, and cut with ease.
In the middle session, Amla survived a good spell from Harbhajan, and even played his first aerial shot of the series, clearing mid-off, Mishra, by inches. Both the batsmen reached their centuries without further incident, but Kolkata was up to mischief soon after.
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