South Africa v India, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 3rd day January 4, 2007

The shoulders of Atlas

Graeme Smith has taken South Africa to within touching distance of the Indian total, and now all eyes are on India, writes Dileep Premachandran



Graeme Smith set the tone with a typically battling innings at the top of the order © AFP

When South Africa emerged to bat on the second afternoon, it was clear that they would need a special innings or two to remain in the contest. India's total of 414 was less than what they would have envisaged at one stage, but it was still imposing on a pitch that was starting to reveal a few gremlins. That South Africa made such a good fist of getting within touching distance owed much to a superb innings from Graeme Smith.

Pilloried after the Wanderers defeat and battling his own batting demons, Smith had shown signs of regaining the high ground in the second innings at Durban. That though was a patchy, uncertain effort. But there was nothing fortuitous or hesitant about the brilliant 94 in front of his adopted home crowd at Newlands.

The pitch prepared for the game must have been a small stake through his heart, a surface that India were likely to revel on even as it largely neutralised South Africa's four-man pace attack. As at Nagpur in 2004, when a green top greeted an incredulous Australian side, the curator had come up with 22 yards that were more to the liking of the visiting team. Wasim Jaffer, who cashed in to the tune of 116 runs, went so far as to consider it a New Year gift.

It would have been all too easy for Smith to let those big shoulders slump and sulk, but he never lost heart on the field and the same positive attitude was in evidence when he arrived at the crease. The booming drives and cuts came off more often than not, and there were some sublime flicks off the pads when Anil Kumble pitched too full. His steadying influence also undoubtedly helped Hashim Amla, who stitched together a sedate and composed half-century under immense pressure.

Amla remains a controversial selection, with many championing the causes of Jacques Rudolph, Boeta Dippenaar and Neil McKenzie, and the 63 he made here will at least buy him time as he attempts to find his feet in Test cricket. Until he got bogged down and had a wild flail at Sreesanth, his was an unflustered and classy supporting act.

Smith had departed by then, another victim for the indefatigable Kumble, and the spin noose tightened as the afternoon wore on. After a useful partnership, Jacques Kallis and Ashwell Prince fell in quick succession, with Kumble and Sachin Tendulkar rewarded for tireless work on a pitch where the turn was as slow as it was sharp.

South Africa's recovery was completed by two sun-beaten old stagers. Shaun Pollock is surely the best No.8 batsman in the world, and in Mark Boucher South Africa have a man who knows not how to back away. Built like a boxer, Boucher has the heart of a bar-room brawler, and the manner in which he stroked his way out of trouble must have been especially galling for an Indian side looking to wrap things up.

There have been only 13 successful chases at Newlands down the years, and barring an exceptional Australian side hunting down 331 in 2001-02, no team has pursued in excess of 179. If Smith and his men are to pull off a remarkable come-from-behind series victory, they'll have to overcome the weight of history. But as Smith has already shown in this Test, he has the shoulders of Atlas.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo