India ahead on stop-start day
Amit Mishra, who had struggled to buy a wicket until the penultimate day of the series, provided two inspirational moments just before two session breaks to keep alive India's hopes of a win on a day that they could managed only 157 minutes of play. Hashim Amla, who had scored 367 runs in two innings before this, was made to dig deep into his patience and skill reserves, and will be hoping he has more in the tank. India would have been much more comfortably placed despite bad light and rain had M Vijay held on to a sharp chance from Amla at backward short leg.
On a riveting, if truncated, day's play India couldn't manage wickets in a hurry but got three of them at regular intervals. Graeme Smith came out bull-headed and, along with Alviro Petersen, almost batted out the one-hour first session. Five minutes before the break, though, Mishra got him with his first delivery. In the second session, Harbhajan Singh, looking menacing with almost every delivery, got Petersen early. Amla and Jacques Kallis looked pretty comfortable for 16 overs, but in deteriorating light Mishra got Kallis with a beauty minutes before the players walked off.
Zaheer Khan got an iffy moment each out of Smith and Petersen in the first few overs, but wasn't helped by the inexplicable choice of just two slips and a gully in his third over. Petersen survived then, but it was Harbhajan - opening the bowling - who looked the most difficult to negotiate.
Harbhajan tested both the batsmen with his drift and dip, and the bounce that the pitch has provided on each of the four days. Smith made sure he didn't repeat the mistake Ashwell Prince and JP Duminy committed in the first innings. His first instinct was to play at every delivery, but he watched the rotations closely, and only if certain of an offbreak he left it alone. Against Zaheer, Smith took a middle and off guard, covering the stumps better, preventing a repeat of the earlier two dismissals.
Against Mishra, though, it seemed Smith let the guard down, and paid for it. He played all around an accurate legbreak, missed, and was trapped in front. India went in to the break a confident side, and came out a confident side.
Just before the break, Harbhajan had got one to bounce and break at Petersen, but there was no backward short leg to take the catch. In his first over after lunch, he nearly got Amla who swept at a full delivery and somehow managed to get an inside edge. In his second, the inevitable Harbhajan dismissal arrived, with another ball turning in sharply to Petersen, and taking the bat and pad. It took a smart catch from forward short leg S Badrinath, though, who went up high to his right, parried it, and then recovered quickly to take the rebound.
Harbhajan was on a roll, and in his third over after the break, got an inside edge from Amla, but Vijay couldn't get down in time. It was the 20th over of the innings, and the Amla-Kallis partnership had hardly even begun. After that and before the eventual Kallis dismissal, neither of the batsmen struggled.
Ishant Sharma's bouncer ploy didn't work: Amla swayed away easily, Kallis pulled him. Harbhajan was swept regularly by Amla, and easily defended by Kallis. Zaheer looked off in his post-lunch spell and was taken off after one over. Mishra's four overs were easy to negotiate.
Then Mishra changed ends and started his third spell off with an accurate maiden to Amla. The second ball of the second over landed around middle, Kallis had to play at it and made provision for the spin as he did, but the ball turned more than budgeted, took a thin edge and settled in MS Dhoni's gloves. It was a big moment in an important day's play: two balls before the dismissal the umpires discussed the light situation, and four balls later walked off for bad light.
That was at 1.44pm, 41 minutes before scheduled tea. Rain followed soon and play resumed at 3.20pm, only for light to deteriorate within three minutes. During this period, Harbhajan bowled one over and Alma cut him for a four to move to 49.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo