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February 16, 2010
There's a reason these two teams are at the top of the Test rankings. The best teams don't just win games. They're also capable of fighting back from reverses that would crush lesser sides. Moments of genius can illuminate Tests, but they're usually won or saved with grit. Even in the days when they thrashed all before them, you could count plenty of occasions when Steve Waugh's side was dug out of a hole by Adam Gilchrist and the tail.
Like a groggy boxer tangled in the ropes, India were thought to be there for the taking after the four-day defeat in Nagpur. Instead, they have stunned South Africa at Eden Gardens with the ferocity of the riposte. Now, it's the visitors who need to box clever and survive, in order to seal the series win they so crave.
In this era of placid pitches, survival is far from impossible. Less than a year ago, India batted 180 overs after being asked to follow on in Napier. Gautam Gambhir batted nearly 11 hours and VVS Laxman made a century as they lost just four wickets in two days.
Kepler Wessels, South Africa's batting consultant, was quietly confident that South Africa could hold on for the draw. "It's a pretty good pitch," he said. "I think you can still bat on it for extended periods of time. Clearly, we're going to be under more pressure than India were, so it'll be more difficult. It should spin a little as the game goes on."
In his view, the approach was going to be crucial. "We're in a position where we have to save the game to win the series," he said. "There's two days of tough Test cricket ahead and we'll fight as hard as we can. We can't just play the survival game. We've still got to look to score runs and play a normal game - form partnerships and bat for long periods."
South Africa find themselves in this predicament largely because of a dismal final session on the opening day, when they surrendered the huge advantage that came with winning the toss. "In the first Test match, we concentrated really well," Wessels said. "We were very tight. We didn't play loosely at any stage. In the first innings here, we were very loose. I think that was the problem.
"In Hashim's case, you can understand it because he batted for such a long time and so well in Nagpur. He was always going to go through phases where it was tough to concentrate for as long again. For Alviro [Petersen] in his first Test, reaching a milestone was quite an emotional thing. I think the guys all accept that there were a few too many loose shots and that got us into trouble."
The sloppiness with the bat was compounded by dropped catches aplenty, with Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith among the culprits on day three. "If you don't take your opportunities against a good side, you're going to pay the price," Wessels said. "You can't drop good players and expect to get away with it, particularly on good surfaces like this."
South Africa weren't helped by the back spasms that ruled out Mark Boucher and the fractured finger that prevented Smith from fielding at first slip. JP Duminy, who took his place, dropped Virender Sehwag on 47 and Laxman on 48, and AB de Villiers, donning the webbed gloves, missed a stumping when Sehwag had 129.
"It's always difficult when you have to reinvent your slip cordon," Wessels said. "We've got an experienced keeper who wasn't there and the most experienced first slip wasn't either. It's challenging but you have to adapt and take the opportunities that come your way. We didn't."
By afternoon, the jauntiness of Nagpur had given way to grim faces. "We expected India to come back strongly," he said. "They're a very good team under their own conditions. We certainly expected them to put up this sort of fight. The body language is inevitable when you're under the cosh and after missing a few opportunities."
The key moments came right at the start of the day, with nine coming from each of the opening two overs, as Amit Mishra made it clear that he wasn't out there to block up one end. In between being dropped twice and the ball darting past the outside edge umpteen times, he played a couple of punishing strokes, adding 48 with Laxman.
"We wanted to bowl well this morning, get some wickets and finish India off," Wessels said. "Perhaps even if they had a lead of a 100 or so, we'd have been happy with that. But they played well, and we just couldn't get the breakthroughs. I thought Dale Steyn bowled well with the second new ball. Morne Morkel came in with one good spell as well. But consistency is an issue for us."
Given that the light has caused play to be called on all three days so far, South Africa have to bat close to 140 overs to make sure they don't lose this game. Like India at Napier, they too have such an effort to summon inspiration from. At Lord's in 2008, they followed on 346 behind. Smith, Neil McKenzie and Amla all made centuries as they played out 167 overs for the draw. Wins in the next two Tests gave them the series.
"South African batsmen have had many similar challenges over the last two years and come through those quite well," said Wessels. "This will be a difficult one, but that's what experienced top international batsmen are for. They've coped with it well in the past and will hopefully do so again tomorrow."
If they do, not a soul, not even at this venue where the home crowd can be a 12th man, will grudge them that No.1 ranking.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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