Laxman and Dhoni flatten South Africa
VVS Laxman and MS Dhoni saw off the tricky period with the second new ball, put together the second double-century stand of the innings, and virtually batted South Africa out of the Test. It was only the second instance of four Indian batsmen scoring centuries in the same innings. It was also Laxman's fourth hundred in nine Tests at Eden Gardens, taking his tally at his beloved ground to 1041 runs at 94.63.
Staring at a massive deficit of 347, South Africa were left needing a huge batting effort, a turnaround of the proportions of the one at the same ground in 2000-01, to make something out of this match. They didn't help themselves by continuing to drop catches: Laxman added 95 after his reprieve, Dhoni 109 after his, and nightwatchman Amit Mishra 23. That to go with the 118 Virender Sehwag added after he was dropped on the second day. They were not all easy catches, but South Africa usually take eight out of 10 such chances.
The crucial period of play was just after Mishra had got out after an entertaining cameo full of edges, plays and misses, and also cracking shots. The lead had reached 88, but with the second new ball Dale Steyn had got his swing back. Morne Morkel was his usual aggressive self, and had Mishra's wicket in his bag. Laxman was caught in a shell, not struggling but he had let Mishra take the ascendancy. South Africa could sense a comeback and were giving it their best with their best bowlers bowling in tandem.
Laxman handled the fast bowlers well. He left outside off and didn't let the bouncer barrage or a period of no runs for 37 balls rattle him either. The closest South Africa came to getting a wicket was an inside edge that flew to the left of the keeper. Once Morkel went off - he had fever - runs came easily, the storm had been weathered, and it was time to accumulate.
Dhoni welcomed back Paul Harris, who could have had Mishra in the second over of the day but for the drop by Jacques Kallis at slip, with a four and a six in his first two overs. India's plan was clear then: Laxman was to be the solid anchorman, and the others were to score quickly around him. In the last over before lunch, Dhoni pushed forward at Harris, the ball spun and the edge flew to left of slip. Kallis had by then taken a special overhead catch to remove Mishra, but this one didn't stick - the third such instance off Harris' bowling in a session and one delivery. Dhoni was 23 then.
In the first over after lunch, Laxman cut Wayne Parnell for four to enter his 40s, and steered him past gully for another four in his next over. Off the next ball, a similar shot went uppishly towards JP Duminy at point. The ball fell slightly in front of him, but those are the catches the South Africans take without making them look tough.
After that Laxman and Dhoni, untested, unquestioned, sauntered towards their centuries. They took their own, unique routes. Laxman was unhurried, there were lovely inside-out drives, flicks out of the rough against Harris, and he used the fast bowlers' pace for scoring on the leg side. Dhoni presented a contrast, walking down the stumps to counter the swing, moving about in the crease, hustling through for ones and twos, relying more on power than timing.
After they reached their centuries, both batsmen naturally accelerated, again in their unique ways. Laxman started flicking more and playing more inside-out shots than before. Dhoni lofted Duminy for back-to-back massive sixes, hit Wayne Parnell through covers, and even turned down singles to Laxman. From 100 off 203 Laxman went to 143 off 260, Dhoni went from 100 off 159 to 132 off 187, and the two recorded the third-highest seventh-wicket partnership in Test cricket before the declaration.
Thirteen minutes after India declared, light deteriorated suddenly, reducing the possibility of 11 overs to five actual deliveries, which the South African openers survived.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo