SA v India, 1st Test, Johannesburg, 4th day December 21, 2013

Crafty bowler v tough batsman

Zaheer Khan and Graeme Smith have history, but the batsman survived the latest chapter of their ongoing duel

Twenty-three balls. That's all it was. It didn't prove to be decisive to the day's play. Fourteen runs came. Not even a wicket resulted. It also lost in entertainment value to the time when MS Dhoni took off his pads and bowled, and then kept without pads. You couldn't take your eye off it, though. A crafty bowler was up against a struggling batsman reputed to thrive on adversity. Zaheer Khan against Graeme Smith was the play of the fourth day, the first half of which was spent by India trying to deny South Africa enough time to force a win.

So it was right in the middle of the day that South Africa began chasing 458 in a possible 135 overs. They couldn't have thought of a win or a draw then. They just had to bat. Zaheer v Smith was not a clean slate, although an average of 31 for an opening batsman against an opening bowler isn't bad. Theirs was going to be the contest again. Smith, who arguably is the best fourth-innings batsman of all time, against Zaheer, who can think batsmen out in ways they don't realise.

Smith didn't face the first ball but don't read much into it. In 27 Tests, Alviro Petersen has taken strike 19 times. In Zaheer's second over, though, Smith was on strike. Virat Kohli was at leg gully. Clearly India had reason to have one of their best fielders there. The ball was on the pads, and Smith flicked it high to Kohli, who couldn't hold a difficult chance. Wonder how much input Zaheer had in placing that catcher. The resultant single let Smith away from the strike.

Last ball of that over, and Smith was facing again. Zaheer went back to his first-innings plan of drawing the left-hand batsman across. A wide length ball swinging away had Smith reaching well outside his off stump. Clearly the ball coming into the pads, which had dismissed him in the first innings, was on Smith's mind. The next ball Zaheer bowled to him, in the fifth over, was similarly wide and Smith played at it. To his credit he looked to play straight, but the away movement resulted in a leading edge through extra cover. Petersen negotiated the remaining deliveries, and after three Zaheer overs, Smith had faced him only three times for four iffy runs.

In Zaheer's fourth over, Smith was on strike again. Zaheer had not been able to bowl a set of deliveries at him. This time he strayed a touch, and Smith finally got a confident single. To the last three balls of that over, Smith presented the middle of the bat to one and refused to be drawn across against the next two wider ones. It was close to tea, India tried a new bowler, and Smith had survived the first examination.

By the time Zaheer returned in the 20th over, South Africa had reached 67 for no loss, and Smith was 15 off 29. Another fascinating contest ensued. The first ball from Zaheer was short and wide. Smith mistimed the cut. The next angled in, took the inside edge onto the pad, and Petersen pushed his captain for a single. Zaheer had Smith to himself for the last three balls of his next over.

When Zaheer pitched short - around 128kph on average - Smith punched solidly. When he bowled full, Smith walked into it - drawn as if by the Pied Piper - and was beaten. Zaheer smiled a smile that usually tells the batsman he has him; it is a matter of time. The over ended with a decent leave outside off, but the contest hadn't.

In his next over, the innings' 24th, Zaheer suddenly began to hide the ball. Surely it wasn't reverse-swinging so soon? What mind games was he up to? We would soon find out. He had Smith on strike for the third ball. It was full, on the pads, and was clipped for four. The fourth delivery was short of a length, outside off, and punched to cover. Zaheer then bowled on a length, on off, and was defended solidly. He had Smith playing.

Then came the surprise. On the last ball of the over, we knew why Zaheer was hiding the ball. Out came the knuckle slower-ball, first unleashed in the tie against England in the 2011 World Cup. Smith did not pick it, and spooned it off his pads. This time, though, Zaheer didn't have a leg gully who would have swallowed it. Another over ended with Zaheer smiling that smile.

In the next over, Zaheer bowled Smith a bouncer, a good one, at his body, about as high as his throat. Smith didn't duck, just got inside the line. Was this sign of growing confidence? Zaheer had him following the next ball, though, and again an over ended with a wry smile.

Soon Zaheer came on for the last over of this spell. He had Smith on strike and he was hiding the ball. Another knuckle ball, and Smith was early on it again. It one lobbed just out of Zaheer's reach, though. Smith was hanging in there. Just. Zaheer was bringing out his tricks one by one. The fourth ball of the over, following a bouncer, was bowled into Smith's ribs. Smith rode the bounce, kept it down, and placed it fine of that leg gully for two. The next delivery was when Zaheer threw it all at Smith.

He had been bowling in the late 120 kph range but this time he seared one in full, at 138kmph. Smith was hurried, not because it was too quick, but because it was a massive step up from what Zaheer had been bowling. He managed to get bat on it, though, and got off strike.

It is said about Smith that he can appear to be struggling, but when you look up he has reached 30. Here, too, Smith was 30 by the time Zaheer's second spell ended. Against the others, Smith grew in confidence. He was 44, and South Africa 108, when he took that risky single and perished. It was anti-climactic, and killed the prospect of another contest against Zaheer, but as we know it was so cricket.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo