India show fight at last
It has to be difficult to be Sachin Tendulkar. Ten minutes after he had finished re-setting the bar for the number of Test centuries, in the process threatening to save India a match from a situation where safety was just a wild dream, Dale Steyn produced the kind of special delivery that wins you Test matches. With one wicket came two, and despite a 172-run, momentum-changing partnership with MS Dhoni, India found themselves on the verge of a Test defeat. Another 16 minutes later, a crazy storm brought along crazy rain. Perhaps Tendulkar's 50th century was meant to come in a losing cause.
The outsiders didn't know how to feel about the man and his mark, leave alone Tendulkar. It was conflicting: it was without doubt a great landmark reached, and a special innings under pressure, but once again, as has been the theme right from the toss, everything that could go wrong was going wrong for India. And the sick old feeling of a great Tendulkar effort going in vain was coming back.
It was fitting that in such a time the man himself sorted out the confusion. "It was extremely important for us to come back strong and send a strong message," Tendulkar said. "I think we have been able to do that. Many positives have come from the match. We need to continue this for the rest of the series."
Without blaming the entire match state on the toss - he knows they could have batted and bowled better than they did in the first innings of the match - Tendulkar said, "The first day, the conditions were completely different, and after the wicket got some sun and a bit of roll, the surface changed and our batsmen put up a good response. There were some very good innings from [Virender] Sehwag, Gautam [Gambhir], and then Rahul [Dravid] was gritty and obviously MS Dhoni played some brilliant shots. There are positives from this Test.
"I wouldn't want to make excuses. Definitely the conditions were different on the first day, both teams would agree to that. [However] whatever challenge is there is front of you, you have to take that on."
Two-and-a-half days too late, but India did take on the challenge. As Tendulkar said, a strong message has been sent. That the team wouldn't roll over and die. It is a message both the teams will carry into the rest of the series. A few players might have been exposed during this Test, but mentally this team is different from the Indian teams of yore. In two years, this team has crossed 450 in the second innings of away Tests twice. In their whole Test-playing history, India have done so only six times.
In what is a cruel irony, Tendulkar's landmark took over the match state at the end of the day. Tendulkar knew he would be hounded by the media in the team hotel, so he let every reporter individually ask him a question that would meet the demands of their organisations. He would have hated to take all the spotlight, especially given the match state, but in the larger interest of a peaceful night for both himself and the reporters, he made that gesture. Never mind that possibly memories such as Chennai 1999 could be running through his mind.
Perhaps not. For this is not like the team of 1999, when it used to be Tendulkar or nothing. Even today, it was not all about Tendulkar. What seems doomed to be forgotten is perhaps Dhoni's finest Test innings, to rank alongside his match-saving effort at Lord's in 2007. He came in, and in his unique manner, shocked South Africa. India had been fighting gamely until then except for Suresh Raina but it was this shock that they needed to slightly rattle South Africa. His feet moved well, and he counterattacked with a clear mind, letting Tendulkar peacefully play for time.
In quick time, against both new ball and old, India were on their way to erasing the deficit. However, it had not been about Dhoni and Tendulkar alone. Never mind the flat track, it takes a lot of buckling down when you know that you have to bat two-and-a-half days to save a Test. Sehwag and Gambhir bounced back from their first-innings failures well, Dravid batted like he was a fixture there until Morne Morkel produced a beauty to remove him, and Ishant Sharma showed a lot of character in battling it out for 69 minutes and his body was targeted more than often. Full credit, though, to South Africa for coming up with those special deliveries to Dravid and Dhoni at times when they desperately needed them.
There are issues still with the Indian team. Raina's position will definitely be reviewed; Ishant and Sreesanth looked pedestrian in Zaheer's absence, which should never be the case; on the field they couldn't do the containing job on the third day to delay the declaration, which would have gone a long way in their fight to save the game. Those issues will need to be addressed over the next five days if they are to convert this second-innings fight into something substantial for the rest of their stay in South Africa.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo