South Africa edge ahead on attritional day
AB de Villiers and Ashwell Prince dug in to scupper a West Indian fightback by Sulieman Benn and put South Africa in a position of control in the deciding Test. Benn's probing left-arm spin had given the hosts a massive boost with the wickets of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, who had forged a threatening stand, but an approach combining patience and determination from de Villiers and Prince, backed up by a bit of luck, helped South Africa lay the stage for a potentially decisive lead on a track expected to deteriorate.
The West Indies spinners were able to extract both turn and bounce in good measure, keeping the close-in fielders interested throughout. Smith and Kallis, however, ensured a steady flow of singles and found the boundary by employing the sweep. The pair had settled in well after seeing off the early pressure created by the loss of nightwatchman Paul Harris and a phase where Dwayne Bravo frustrated South Africa with four consecutive maidens. But Benn kept on creating chances, and a wicket remained in sight.
He altered his lengths to Kallis, who was rapped on the pads while attempting the sweep and given out by Simon Taufel. A review resulted in the decision being overturned for height. His persistence was rewarded when Smith, surprised by the sharp turn and extra bounce from the footmarks, offered a catch to short leg. Benn's victory against Kallis would have been more satisfying. Given the ball in the first over after lunch, Benn beat the outside edge with one that spat away and followed it up with a delivery that just angled in, didn't turn and crashed into the off stump with Kallis shouldering arms. South Africa were 145 for 5, and the game had evened out.
While reflecting on their performance today, West Indies will perhaps look back at three opportunities they squandered, enabling South Africa to recover. Twice could they have had AB de Villiers dismissed, but erred in judgement and opted against the review. When on 8, de Villiers bottom-edged Kemar Roach to the wicketkeeper as he tried to leave the ball, and the appeal was turned down by umpire Steve Davies. A long discussion followed, and the decision went uncontested. There was a chance again after tea, when de Villiers, now on 42, appeared to be trapped in front by debutant Brandon Bess, but the umpire's call again stood. And, once more, when the two had been well set, Prince's call for an ill-judged single could have resulted in his run-out, but Brendan Nash at point missed by a mile.
It was slow going initially by de Villiers and Smith, cautious against Benn who kept attacking with five fielders around the bat. Prince was beaten more than once with the extra bounce, while de Villiers' uncertainty was evident in his initial attempt to constantly step out of the crease irrespective of the lengths. But time spent in the middle brought with it more confidence. When there was width available, they pierced the field through point and cover and turned the face to work the ball through square and midwicket when the line was straighter. de Villiers broke a 135-ball boundary drought, driving Shane Shillingford past mid-off, and Prince brought up the half-century partnership with a push to point in a post-lunch session that yielded just 58.
The challenge from the hosts appeared to be tapering off after tea, with the spinners doling out long hops, promptly dispatched for boundaries, and Bess adding to the frustration with his indiscipline with the second new-ball. He bowled seven no-balls, provided width, strayed on the pads and dropped short to be dealt with by the batsmen who gradually had begun to loosen up. de Villiers' drive to point, which resulted in a missed run-out and overthrows, raised his half-century and took South Africa into the lead; Prince reached his own with a sweep off Benn.
However, just as West Indies seemed to be drifting out of contention, Benn struck again to remove de Villiers shortly before stumps, nicking one straight to Denesh Ramdin. West Indies may have pulled things back slightly, but they still need to confront the depth of South Africa's lower order to limit the damage already caused.
Siddhartha Talya is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo