Rope-a-dope day for West Indies
"Sort of a dope on the ropes, letting Foreman swing away but, like in the picture, hit nothing but air," was how the boxing photographer George Kalinsky called Mohammad Ali's technique. You could say that about West Indies today, especially in that stirring second session where they showed a big heart. It was a raucous final session too; they seemed to be firmly shutting the doors on defeat but Harbhajan Singh, who was on top of his art throughout the day, opened the door ajar for a fascinating finish on the final day. Shivnarine Chanderpaul wedged himself in the way of victory and so much potential drama awaits us tomorrow.
The intensity today was crackling and it was cricket, lovely cricket. The afternoon session was taut with pressure, skill, increasing claustrophobia, a dropped catch, and the eventual release of the jail-break moment. The evening was filled with rambunctiousness and high drama.
It's to that afternoon session that we will return first. India hustled superbly, Harbhajan was buzzing and Munaf Patel had a plan, Kirk Edwards gritted it out and Chanderpaul hung on to his dear life as West Indies deployed rope-a-dope. They just couldn't finish the whole routine in the end as Harbhajan threw a sucker punch.
The afternoon was high drama. It's when the game was hanging on the edge, swaying towards India. Perhaps, an early finish was on cards, you wondered then. The context provided more drama. Edwards is a debutant, who was given wrongly out in the first innings. He seemed iffy against the short ball. He seemed almost strokeless in the afternoon initially. And then there was Chanderpaul, the last senior standing in this West Indies team with doomsday clouds hovering over him. It had threatened to rain in the morning but luckily, the sun was out by the noon. We had the best crowd of the Test series today. There were quite a few Indian fans, probably down from the US, hollering cheerfully at one corner. Around them and across them, at the grass mound, the West Indians sat under umbrellas, shielding themselves from the sun. The drama began to unravel.
Chances of a West Indian survival looked bleak. Harbhajan had tasted blood early when he lured Darren Bravo, shaken by a big turning leaping off break, to lob the next delivery to deepish wide mid-off where a man was placed exactly for that. Adrian Barath's iffy technique to seaming deliveries outside off had already consumed him by then.
India attacked with a combination of Harbhajan and Munaf. Late in the first session, against Harbhajan, Edwards had shown a reluctance to get on to the front foot. And so Harbhajan started the second with full deliveries just outside off but Edwards started to stretch forward. Harbhajan shifted to plan B, a path shown by Edwards himself by displaying a slight vulnerability in tackling offbreaks bouncing towards his hips. Harbhajan packed the close-in leg-side field and let rip. Edwards continued to waft at them but managed to wrist them down away from waiting palms.
Edwards did this through the day actually. First he would leave a door slightly ajar with a hint of a weakness, slowly correct it later and then firmly shut that trap. It was the same against Munaf who started with full-length deliveries outside off. Edwards groped at a few. Once, the ball cut past the edge and bounded off the thigh. Edwards soon started to leave expertly and block the deliveries in line with the stumps. Munaf shifted to his plan B - bowl bouncers. Edwards pulled the initial couple weakly - one flew off the top edge, one just about lobbed past square-leg and so Munaf persisted. India persisted. Edwards started to arch back better, but still a touch hesitantly, and play them. By the end, he was pulling them ferociously to the boundary. The crowd roared. The flags started to wave and they had a ball, egging on the debutant, in the final session.
Meanwhile, Chanderpaul was waging his own war. He was acutely uncomfortable against Harbhajan initially and Munaf was making him feel claustrophobic with the just-outside-off line. He pushed, prodded, stabbed against Harbhajan. The offbreaks leaped, some floated across with scrambled seam, a few lifted to hit the thigh, a few turned past the edge and all along there were nearly five men crowding him with their shadows and stares.
The rope-a-dope continued. And it nearly ended in the last over before tea when Chanderpaul stabbed a bouncing offbreak from Harbhajan to right of first slip where Rahul Dravid dropped a catch, which he would have swallowed on better days. Harbhajan took his hat and walked away to the dressing room. Dravid kept shaking his head as he strode off. That was the jail-break moment.
Post-tea Edwards had turned rambunctious. The crowd lapped it up in great delight. He pulled the seamers, moved down the track to Harbhajan, lapped the part-time spinners and had a ball. Chanderpaul cut, square drove and kept up his with nip-and-tuck routine.
One further tense moment awaited Edwards when, on 99, he pushed a delivery towards Harbhajan and ran for his life. For his hundred. Chanderpaul wasn't responding. Edwards froze. Harbhajan picked the ball and let rip and it travelled past Edwards - wonder what his heart-rate would have been at that moment - but it was wide of the stumps and an advancing MS Dhoni couldn't collect it too. Tension gave way to relief. He dropped his bat as he reached the other end. The relief turned into joy. He lifted his helmet and held his hands high in the air. All that afternoon caution and struggle had paid off.
Finally, West Indies batsmen were showing some heart. Finally, there was some just reward for that West Indian bowling unit, led by the admirable Fidel Edwards. And just when the bowlers might have eased back in the chair, Harbhajan charged India ahead.
He saw Dravid spill another chance, a much tougher one this time, off the back off Edwards' bat and moving diagonally across Dhoni, he witnessed an edge wobble past the lunging short-leg before he induced a fatal edge. Immediately, he swooped in for the kill and removed Marlon Samuels, who chose to dangerously hang back to full deliveries and was wrongly given out to a delivery that was missing the off stump. Harbhajan, who has so many critics railing against him, would have earned some admirers today.
Harbhajan has pushed India right on top here and has raised the possibility of a tricky little chase on the final afternoon of the series. However, today was a day that West Indies fans would look back with some fondness. A debutant sparkling with a hundred and a veteran admired by many and frowned upon by some, rediscovering himself in the moment of crisis. It wasn't just a smoke screen in the present-day Babylon. There was indeed some fire after all. India, though, seem to have the fire-extinguisher. Tomorrow will tell.
Sriram Veera is a staff writer at ESPNcricinfo