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South Africa v India, 1st Test, Jo'burg, 3rd day

The hard work finally pays

Dileep Premachandran at Johannesburg

December 17, 2006

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This is one hungry side © AFP
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After a breathless Saturday that was packed with more incident than the average Guy Ritchie movie, Sunday was a throwback to a more prosaic era when runs were eked out rather than clattered. And on a day where only 10 wickets fell, it won't have escaped anyone's notice that the best bowler on view was once again Sreesanth, whose coming of age in this game will one day be part of Indian cricket lore.

On Saturday, everything happened so quickly that there was barely any time for it to sink in. There was also an uneasy feeling that it could prove to be a lone summer swallow. So, when Sreesanth was handed the new ball after lunch, less than an hour after his mid-pitch mocking of Andre Nel, he needed to remove the f word - fluke - from everyone's thoughts. He did so in emphatic fashion, and with a little more luck - Ashwell Prince appeared to edge one behind when on 44, and Zaheer Khan couldn't quite reach a top-edged hook from Mark Boucher - could well have had a second five-wicket haul.

An affable, if slightly eccentric, boy off the field, Sreesanth suffers from the white-line fever that afflicts men like Glenn McGrath once they enter the field of play. There's more than a bit of mongrel in him, and for India's sake, you can only hope that no one tries to change that. There were several bowlers in the past who had the tools to destroy batting sides, but they came with body language as limp as an overused washrag. You're unlikely to ever see Sreesanth slinking away with dropping shoulders.

While Sreesanth and friends were doing their thing for the second day in succession, it was hard not to think of the reams that have been written about the need for a bowling coach. With the team's one-day fortunes in freefall in recent months, the back-room staff have been slated, mostly by those who haven't watched a single practice session and therefore know little about the effort that Ian Frazer and Greg King put in to assist Greg Chappell.

Coaching staff can't win you a game, they can only prepare you to be successful. And after the one-day debacle, both players and coaching staff have worked like Trojans to put things right. Much was made of Sreesanth's chat with Allan Donald on Saturday morning, and while it undoubtedly helped, it shouldn't obscure the fact that the hard yards had been done over hundreds of practice sessions dating back more than a year. And the manner in which India have outbowled South Africa in this game was ample proof that bowling coaches - South Africa do have one in Vincent Barnes - alone don't guarantee magic bullets.

Superb bowling from the seamers was backed up by some exceptional catching, with Sehwag's grab at point especially noteworthy. And what can you say of Zaheer? When he was dropped after Pakistan, he was an overweight lumbering wreck. Today, in addition to probing spells with the ball and an exceptional 37 with the bat, he swooped from mid-on to run out AB de Villiers. This is a hungry side, and the likes of Zaheer, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman epitomise it. Combined with assured captaincy from Rahul Dravid, and the spirit and verve of Sreesanth and VRV Singh, it has the makings of a dangerous team.

South Africa are still hanging on by the most slender of threads, and for that they can thank Prince, who rode his luck and some moments of acute discomfort to make a gritty 50. Hashim Amla too started brightly before another excellent delivery curtailed his innings, while De Villiers also showed commendable restraint before misjudging a single. With Graeme Smith in wretched form, and Herschelle Gibbs seemingly sleepwalking through games, the new order may need to make weightier contributions in the coming Tests.

For India, the sense of anticipation may well destroy any chance of sleep tonight. Complacent thoughts must be ruthlessly dismissed, but they will be all too aware that they're a mere telling spell away from the most famous of victories. For a team that started the game as no-hopers, that's a heady position to be in.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo

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Dileep Premachandran Associate editor Dileep Premachandran gave up the joys of studying thermodynamics and strength of materials with a view to following in the footsteps of his literary heroes. Instead, he wound up at the Free Press Journal in Mumbai, writing on sport and politics before Gentleman gave him a column called Replay. A move to MyIndia.com followed, where he teamed up with Sambit Bal, and he arrived at ESPNCricinfo after having also worked for Cricket Talk and total-cricket.com. Sunil Gavaskar and Greg Chappell were his early cricketing heroes, though attempts to emulate their silken touch had hideous results. He considers himself obscenely fortunate to have watched live the two greatest comebacks in sporting history - India against invincible Australia at the Eden Gardens in 2001, and Liverpool's inc-RED-ible resurrection in the 2005 Champions' League final. He lives in Bangalore with his wife, who remains astonishingly tolerant of his sporting obsessions.
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