SA well placed for victory push
The fall of Rahul Dravid, who copped his second rough decision of the match, just minutes before bad light brought an expected but premature end to the fourth day's play, left India precariously poised at 38 for 2 with a day left to try and hang on to their 1-0 series lead. The target of 354 looks beyond reach and South Africa are in with a very good chance of squaring the series, if the weather permits.
It was never going to be easy for India, coming out to bat in their second essay about an hour before tea. Virender Sehwag, who is in the middle of a lean patch, poked defensively at a ball from Makhaya Ntini and only managed an edge to first slip, where Graeme Smith gleefully gobbled up the offering. Dravid was out in the middle in just the fifth over, with 14 on the board. India desperately needed a solid start, if they were to keep South Africa at bay and defend their 1-0 series lead, but they got the exact opposite.
Dravid played defensively at a fullish ball and missed, with his bat brushing his pad. The appeal for the catch behind was spontaneous, and Asad Rauf, the umpire, had also heard the sound, and believing it to be bat making contact with pad, upheld the appeal. It was a close one, and replays showed daylight between bat and ball, but to be fair to Rauf, this would have been hard to pick up with the naked eye. All the same, it was a desperate setback for India.
For cricket lovers, though, it was a day to savour as the pendulum swung this way and that before coming to rest firmly in South Africa's favour. South Africa strung together three vital partnerships in the course of their innings - the first, worth 99, at the top of the innings between AB de Villiers and Smith, the second, worth 70 for the seventh wicket between Shaun Pollock and Andrew Hall, and finally an energetic eighth-wicket stand of 52 between Pollock and Morne Morkel.
But in between the first partnership and the other two there was plenty of excitement. India fought back strongly after the 99-run opening partnership to wrest the initiative from South Africa. Wickets tumbled in a heap, cheaply, and India briefly harboured hopes of forcing a positive result. When the day began India were on the back foot and looking worriedly at the burgeoning South African lead. All that changed.
Smith and de Villiers were doing exactly what was needed of them, picking off the runs and putting the pressure on India. For once Smith was among the runs, and de Villiers looked completely at ease at the crease. VRV Singh struck, against the run of play, when one ball bounced a touch extra and took the outside edge. Laxman took a good catch low down in the slips cordon, and de Villiers was gone for 47 with the score on 99.
Sreesanth, who was nearing the end of a longish spell, won an lbw appeal against Hashim Amla, who fell across his stumps and was rapped on the pad. The ball was slipping towards leg but replays showed that ball would probably have hit the leg stump. Amla was gone for a duck.
Smith was the next to go, beaten all ends up by a ball that pitched just outside the off stump and moved back in off the pitch and was bowled through the gate. Smith had made 59 in South Africa's 121, and all of a sudden there was a spring in the step of the Indian bowlers and fielders. Ashwell Prince, the centurion from the first innings, did not trouble the scorers in the second. Sreesanth angled the ball across the left-handed bat, and forced to play, Prince could only edge the ball to slip.
Things were about to get worse for South Africa as Anil Kumble joined the fun, picking up a wicket early in his spell. A tossed-up legbreak just outside the off stump lulled Herschelle Gibbs into a false drive that went straight to Dinesh Karthik, the substitute fielder, at short cover. When Zaheer Khan had Mark Boucher plumb in front South Africa were in serious trouble at 143 for 6. In the space of 44 runs South Africa had lost six wickets, and India had turned a potentially dangerous situation into one of great strength.
From there on, however South Africa roared back. Pollock, who made an unbeaten 63 with 10 cleanly hit fours, strung together two critical partnerships, pushing the score along to 265 when Smith decided it was time to declare and have a crack at the Indians before the tea break.
And although only 13 overs of play were possible, and the number of overs lost in the match so far reached a whopping 116, South Africa will still be sniffing a victory, having picked up two huge wickets. They will come out all guns blazing on the final day, and only a determined Indian effort, and the weather, can deny them victory from here on.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo
Dileep Premachandran at Durban
Highlight of the day: Shaun Pollock's rollicking unbeaten 63 took the cake and all the tea-time biscuits too. On a pitch where more illustrious batsmen struggled, he timed the ball beautifully, stroking 10 fours during his 99-ball stay.
Lowlight of the day: Asad Rauf gave Rahul Dravid out when the bat brushed pad, but the worst moment was undoubtedly the players going off with 35 overs still to be bowled. Mickey Arthur complained long and hard about the delays and disruptions on Thursday evening, but his batsmen set the tone by heading off on the opening day. With the bad-light threshold fixed there, the umpires have had little choice but to offer the light at the first sign of leaden skies.
Shot of the day: Mornè Morkel going down on one knee, and sending a delivery from Anil Kumble soaring over wide mid-on. It fell just short of the rope, but was further evidence that bowling quick isn't the young man's sole talent.
Ball of the day: Making a mess of Graeme Smith's stumps was visually more pleasing, but Sreesanth would probably value the wicket of the in-form Ashwell Prince more. Pitched on the stumps, it moved away just enough to take the tentative edge through to slip.
Catch of the day: AB de Villiers was three short of 50 when he drove hard at VRV Singh. The ball flew in the direction of second slip, where VVS Laxman took a beautifully judged low catch.
Message of the day: When a VRV Singh yorker nearly sneaked through his defence, Smith looked up and mumbled that he didn't see it. De Villiers' response was pure class. "Open your eyes," he said, though we're not sure if he's an admirer of Alejandro Amenábar's work.
Off the park: Allan Donald had a chat with VRV Singh this morning, and was clearly impressed by his ability to extract disconcerting bounce off a good length. There are no quick fixes in cricket though, and VRV still needs to do a lot of work on line and length, not to mention that no-ball problem.