India v South Africa, 2nd Test, Kolkata, 1st day February 14, 2010

Kirsten praises bowlers for resilience

S Aga

Just what is it with the Eden Gardens and dramatic collapses? Nearly a decade ago, in the match that few in this part of the world will ever forget, Australia were in complete command at tea on the opening day. Matthew Hayden had biffed his way to 97 in typically muscular fashion and the scoreboard showed 193 for 1. Four balls after the interval, he went to hit Harbhajan Singh against the turn and found Hemang Badani at deep midwicket. Six more wickets fell in the final session, with Harbhajan taking a hat-trick, as Australia closed on 291 for 8.

On the final day of the same game, Waugh's side plummeted from a relatively secure 161 for 3 at tea to 212 all out. That collapse changed the course of an enthralling series, but what we witnessed in 25 overs after tea today was an even more drastic reversal of fortune.

Alviro Petersen's debut innings had ended shortly before tea, but there'd have been few alarms in the dressing room with the score a rudely healthy 228 for 2. But two indiscreet shots, from the two men who were the foundation of the victory in Nagpur, and everything changed. Hashim Amla misjudged a pull off Zaheer Khan, and Jacques Kallis top-edged a slog-sweep off Harbhajan that VVS Laxman took brilliantly over his shoulder while running towards fine leg.

"When you looked at it at tea, we were in trouble," said Gary Kirsten, India's coach. "Let's be honest about that. All credit to the bowlers for turning it around. They showed tremendous resilience. They have bowled pretty well this series without the rewards. When you're picking four bowlers every Test, it's an enormous workload on them. We've got to give them credit for the way they run in Test after Test. This is our fourth on the trot."

Perhaps the key passage of play had come just before the tea break, when Ishant Sharma gave a glimpse of what he can do when the rhythm is right. He went wicketless in a four-over spell that cost 12 runs, but Amla, who had eased to a hundred with few alarms, suddenly appeared troubled. Zaheer, who replaced Ishant, continued the good work, putting together an outstanding spell either side of the interval - 6-3-11-2.

"We've felt that he's just on the edge of doing some good stuff again," said Kirsten of Ishant's spell. "We know that he's an exceptionally talented bowler and he's just coming back to some really nice form. He bowled a nice aggressive spell. He wanted to get his pace up closer to the 140s where he wants to be. He was letting the ball go beautifully today. It was a very important spell because more than getting wickets, it set the tone for what we wanted to achieve after tea."

Suddenly, the same attack that had looked largely innocuous for the first two sessions found its bite. More importantly, chances were grabbed, and the stumps hit to catch the dangerous AB de Villiers out of his ground. "If you're not getting wickets because the ball's doing a bit, you've got to build pressure," said Kirsten. "And there's no better way of building pressure than getting a few wickets.

"It happened to us in the first Test. We were going nicely with the bat, we lost a wicket and pressure was created. We did that in this game. We mustn't always be looking for assistance to get wickets. When you can create pressure by doing some creative things on the field, which I thought we did today, batsmen play very differently."

For two sessions, with both spinners seemingly incapable of bowling a maiden, the decision to go in with two slow bowlers and leave Sreesanth out had looked decidedly dubious. Amit Mishra was unlucky with a couple of leg-before shouts, and Harbhajan far from amused after Laxman dropped a straightforward chance at slip when Amla had made just 60. But there were too many four balls, and too little pressure, especially with a debutant at the crease.

"We'd always like to have a third seamer, and two spinners," said Kirsten, explaining the omission of Sreesanth. "But the balance of our team doesn't work that way. We either have to opt for three seamers and one spinner or two and two. We felt that an extra spinner on this wicket is going to be important."

And after the criticism that Harbhajan Singh has received in recent times, Kirsten was understandably delighted with his efforts after tea, with both Ashwell Prince and JP Duminy quickly joining Kallis in the pavilion in a passage of play that utterly changed the complexion of the game. "I thought Harbhajan bowled really well in the last game, and I thought the South Africans played him very well," he said. "Even though he was in good rhythm, he needed to come up with ways to get wickets. I've been very confident that his rhythm has got better and better as the series has gone along. When the confidence is going and the rhythm's good, he's going to get wickets."

The [Dale] Steyn menace looms large on day two, but Kirsten was quietly confident that there was nothing in the conditions to worry his batsmen. "We didn't feel it took too much turn," he said. "We didn't feel that it offered that much assistance to the seamers. There's a long way to go in the Test, but it looks a fairly good wicket at the moment. There was a lot less grass on the wicket today than there was yesterday, otherwise we would have gone for three seamers."

There was little encouragement in the Nagpur pitch either, but Steyn still ended up with a 10-wicket haul. It's advantage India for the moment, but on a pitch where there's been enough bounce for those willing to hit the deck hard, it would be foolhardy in the extreme to discount South Africa. Back in 2001, India were dismissed for 171 after Waugh had stretched Australia's innings to 445 all out. If Monday sees that kind of drama, the roof might just come off a stadium that's already half rubble.