Test cricket at its best

Now that Jade Goody has been relieved of her duties as one of the prime exhibits in the freakshow that is Big Brother, people's attentions may divert to Port Elizabeth, where an equally almighty dogfight is currently underway.
The first Test, although comprehensively and deservedly won by South Africa, also revealed two sides not entirely distant from each other. This Test has confirmed that belief, though on no day has it been more apparent than the third.

At any point the advantage has appeared to be slipping to one end, it has been yanked back the other way. South Africa began the day behind, but confident with Jacques Kallis and Ashwell Prince at the crease and Pakistan a bowler short. Prince went early, advantage Pakistan. Kallis resisted, with Herschelle Gibbs till lunch, deuce.

Pakistan struck back immediately after, advantage again. Shaun Pollock and Mark Boucher countered till tea, momentum again inched back. Both fell immediately after the break and Pakistan smiled, till a terrific tailend thwack made them nervous again. If the day were a road, it might be the world's most crooked - Lombard Street, in San Francisco - so many turns did it have.

It wasn't as if either side was giving away the initiative for it required quite monumentally skilful cricket to create these ebbs and flows. Skill levels evened out so that when Mohammad Sami and Gibbs were chancing at each other in an otherwise tight morning session, Kallis was enmeshed in an altogether tighter, cagier duel with Mohammad Asif.

They say the best legspinners are those with the mentality of a fast bowler. It will only be fitting, for the impact that Shane Warne has had on the game, if future fast bowlers are said to be good if they have the mentality of a leggie. Or rather the leggie. Asif resembled Warne all day, wheeling away at one spot, from one end, emitting suggestive oohs and aahs to innocuous deliveries and a bristling "How are you still here, mate?" to better ones.

Kallis was unmoved; creating a bubble around you is not always a bad thing. Defensively he was a master, leaving what needed leaving. To all else he presented a bat and body that was, to quote reggae star Barrington Levy, broader than Broadway. When he did play shots, his bat had only a middle and no gaps between it and his pads.

He was beaten on rare occasions, he would have expected that from Asif, but the bubble stood firm. It took the day's best spell by the best bowler to finally remove him. Records shouldn't matter but if Inzamam's near-miss yesterday was romantically cruel - he has never made a hundred against South Africa - Kallis's was only a little less, for it would've completed a hundred on every South African ground (not counting his only innings at East London, an unbeaten 75).
Around them, the support rallied. Sami and Danish Kaneria made light of the absence of Shoaib Akhtar, Inzamam juggling them as delicately as he would expensive crystals on ice skates. Sami was a revelation, quick and above all accurate in his most enervating Test performance in recent memory. As you read this, if you are Pakistani, you might well look for the nearest bit of wood to touch and pray that it isn't a one-off.

But when you're 64 ahead, with only four wickets in hand, the only players you'd really want coming in are Boucher and Pollock (unless you're Australia of course). Typically, Boucher slugged it out with shots that really were jabs, hooks and swift punches. Pollock was the gazelle, easy defence and long, graceful strides into his strokes. The languidness undid him as did an untimely uppercut for Boucher, but an 80-run partnership was liquid gold at the time.

Added bonuses, like the director's out-takes at the end of a movie, came in the forms of a rare, perfect over-rate and Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel's pumped partnership at the very end. Kamran Akmal's keeping jarred with the quality of cricket and it may yet prove crucial, but that will be the stuff for post-mortems. For now, as we reach the peak of a madly absorbing Test, only an outstanding day of cricket needs to be appreciated. Even more, purists will add, than the two, high-quality, desperately-tussled ODIs that took place on different continents.