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January 3, 2007
Though you wouldn't usually associate such sentiments with a comedian, it was Charlie Chaplin that once said: "This is a ruthless world and one must be ruthless to cope with it." That's never been truer than in sport, where the most successful teams are those that put the boot in without any sense of remorse. During the course of the current Ashes series, Matthew Hayden was quoted as saying that Australia wanted to grind England into the dust. Winning alone wasn't enough.
It's not an attitude that sits easily with everyone, but it's what separates the best in the business from those that merely compete. India still have a way to go into that regard, as evidenced by the dismal collapse on the second afternoon. At 395 for 5, they had South Africa on the ropes, but with the knockout punch set up, they slipped and fell flat on their faces. And as Graeme Smith dished out some big-hitting punishment of his own in the final session, they could only look back ruefully at a wonderful opportunity casually spurned.
The match was poised for Sehwag to grab it by the throat as he walked to the crease. The second new ball was 31.1 overs old, there was no lateral movement, and South Africa's frontline bowlers had all bowled fairly long spells under an intense sun. And after surviving a fright on the last ball before lunch, he was largely untroubled, stroking both Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini for a couple of fours. And though Paul Harris had been troubling most batsmen out of the rough, Sehwag made his intentions amply clear with a huge hit into the grass banks behind midwicket.
With the pace bowlers toiling hard on a pitch that offered little, it was the sort of situation that cried out for the Sehwag of old - the merciless pillager who reduced the likes of Shoiab Akhtar to a shambling wreck on a similar surface at Multan. These days though, the utter calm that typified his best days isn't in evidence, replaced by a kind of twitchy nervousness, even when the runs are flowing freely. A couple of previous attempts to belt Harris against the turn had gone awry, but when he top-edged a heave, his ration of luck ran out. And so did India's, with the remaining four wickets contributing next to nothing.
Sourav Ganguly was left high and dry, after a gutsy innings that started in embarrassing fashion with blows to the glove and helmet. His technique, or lack of it, against the short ball might have opened him up to considerable criticism and ridicule, but there's no questioning that he still has the heart of a warrior. Even after being hit, no scoring opportunity was missed, with some dreamy drives and clever deflections upping the scoring rate considerably. His partnerships with Sachin Tendulkar and Sehwag had South Africa searching for answers, but neither assumed the proportions to shut them out of the game.
For that, South Africa's bowlers deserve immense credit. Ntini was well below his best, but Pollock was magnificent once again, probing away relentlessly, with only Ganguly taking him on. Steyn was ferociously quick at times, summoning up the ball of the day to Laxman, and Smith rotated them enough to ensure that there was no listlessness.
The real revelation though was Harris, with 4 for 129 on debut. His lanky, 6'6" frame isn't what you'd generally associate with a slow bowler, but he was ceaselessly accurate and unruffled when taken on. Few spin bowlers have stared Indian batsmen in the eye without blinking, but Harris did that by making optimum use of the rough patches and his height to discomfit the very best. Like Monty Panesar on debut at Nagpur, Harris will cherish one particular wicket more than most, especially given how well Tendulkar had batted till the ball darted away to take the edge.
As Shane Warne and Anil Kumble have shown down the years, spin bowling is as much about the temperament to come back from being thumped as it is about revs on the ball. On the eve of the game, Harris spoke of how he wasn't worried about what the Indian batsmen would do, preferring to focus instead on what he could achieve. It sounded like bravado at the time, but with ball in hand, the man built like a batsketball centre proved his point. At 28, he's is a late entrant to the scene, but on this evidence, he could be around for a few years to come.
The Indians will look at replays of the wickets that Harris took, and reflect on what went wrong. Half an hour of mayhem tore up a carefully written script, and if they don't get Smith early on the third day, a fairytale finish to the series might yet give way to a nightmare. Bring on Sun Tzu, and some lessons in ruthlessness.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of CricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
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