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South Africa have the upper hand

West Indies were backed up against the ropes but still standing and still scrapping after another round of intense struggle in the second Test at Newlands yesterday. Once again, every punch was followed by a counterpunch but South Africa's blows on opponents handicapped by significant injuries, were more frequent and more telling.

Trailing by 25 at the start of a day of glorious, cloudless sunshine with half their wickets still in tact, the home team battled their way to an eventual lead of 78 and proceeded to further reinforce their position by removing four West Indies wickets for 96 by close.

The equation entering the fourth day is a distinct advantage for the highly-ranked home team. The unexpectedly plucky contenders are ahead by just 18 with hopes of extending the 1-0 lead in the series - gained by their shock, deserving win in the first Test in Port Elizabeth - dependent mainly on sizeable contributions by their two best and most experienced batsmen, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and captain Chris Gayle, who resume their partnership this morning.

On a thickly-grassed outfield that devalues shots, even though cut before the start, and a pitch that has yielded 14 wickets to catches off the outside edge between wicketkeeper and gully, apart from more playing and missing than is usual in an entire series, a winning target even as modest of 180 or thereabouts would not be as straightforward as it appears.

But this would require an exceptional effort for West Indies, especially in light of the hamstring injuries that have incapacitated two key players.

Gayle's, sustained in Zimbabwe back on December 2 and aggravated while batting in the first innings, forced him to abandon the opening position he has filled in all but six of his 124 Test innings, and appear quarter-hour to the end at No. 6 in the company of a runner. The last time he dropped down the list was in South Africa four years ago, in the Johannesburg Test, once more because of a leg muscle injury.

Fidel Edwards, the main strike bowler, was not available for the rest of the match and probably series by a grade-two strain that struck him down after 4.5 overs in the first innings. His absence placed heavy responsibility on the rest that may have taken its toll on their fitness.

The contest had swung towards South Africa over the last two hours, 10 minutes of the second day when Ashwell Prince and the feisty wicketkeeper Mark Boucher lifted their team from the instability of 131 for 5 with an unbroken stand of 87.

They defied steady bowling through the first hour, 10 minutes yesterday to stretch their partnership to 129 and the lead to 17. The closest they came to being separated was by Marlon Samuels' throw from midwicket that missed its target with Boucher, at 51, well short of his ground.

It took the introduction of Dwayne Bravo to make the break. The bowling hero of the previous day with his 24 consecutive overs and three wickets, lost a close lbw appeal against Boucher one ball and induced a misjudged pull the next that was diverted into the stumps in a replay of his second-innings dismissal in the first Test.

Daren Powell, so short of control the previous day he conceded 69 from 19 wicketless overs, took up the slack left by Edwards' absence with 16 consecutive overs. Reward for his tireless effort was the wickets of Paul Harris and Andre Nel, caught off tentative outside edges by second slip and keeper.

South Africa were a manageable 41 to the good when No. 10 Dale Steyn joined Prince on Nel's dismissal, carrying AB de Villiers with him as a runner in deference to a reported hamstring strain. It was a strange course since the injury didn't prevent him from taking his place when West Indies batted again or from delivering nine overs for the return of Runako Morton's wicket.

A couple of missed catches in the deep, the first signs in the series of fallibility in the series, aided the addition of 37 valuable runs for the last two wickets. The first was by Morton off Prince's top-edged hook off Bravo, when the left-hander was 91, the second by substitute Darren Sammy at deep midwicket off Steyn's slog off Marlon Samuels.

Prince, excited by the prospects of his seventh Test hundred, did not make use of his opportunity - and had only himself, and Jerome Taylor, to blame. He was three short of his goal when he chose to chance a second run on a shot to third man. He lost. Taylor swooped on the ball and his return to wicketkeeper Denesh Ramdin, fast and accurate if a little high, beat Prince's dive for home by a yard to so. His statistics of just over five hours and 225 balls in changing such a delicate balance represented an innings of real character.

Steyn and Makhaya Ntini put on a further 20 for the last wicket, vital runs in a low scoring match, until Rawl Lewis' second Test wicket, in his fifth match, ended the innings to a catch at deep midwicket.

Gayle returned to the team room between innings in such distress from his tender hamstring after 118.2 overs in the field that he reluctantly acknowledged it would be foolhardy to try to head back out to open the innings.

A volunteer was sought and, according the media manager Philip Spooner, Ramdin immediately raised his hand. The wicketkeeper is a novice to the position and, for the 17 overs to tea in which three sets of leg-byes boundaries helped put West Indies at 30 without loss, he confirmed it.

He seemed to be batting blindfolded, so repeatedly did Nel especially, Ntini and Steyn pass his bat. But he kept his composure under Nel's usual verbal barrage and gradually found the middle of the bat with five aggressive boundaries in 32.

He and his Trinidad and Tobago captain Daren Ganga lasted into the 27th over, putting on 59, before Ramdin finally touched a catch to the keeper, off Jacques Kallis.

Morton followed in the next over to an inappropriate drive at Steyn that presented Boucher with another catch.

The dismissals of Ganga and Marlon Samuels, both assured but always under threat from the occasional unplayable delivery from the tricky surface, tightened South Africa's grip. Ganga's vigil of two-and-three-quarter hours for 22 was ended by Ntini's first ball of a new spell, bowled off the pad by one that cut back.

Samuels fought hard for an hour and 25 minutes for 18 but was quarter-hour short of batting through to the end when Nel won an lbw decision against him. It scuppered Gayle's hope of not to having to bat for the remainder of the day. He saw through the end comfortably but he carried his real job into the fourth day.