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A cavalier spirit

A great innings can often be compared to a magnificent edifice, with runs the building blocks and slices of luck the thin lines of cement. Without the humble adhesive, there can be no monuments in marble, and Virender Sehwag, for one, wouldn't dispute that.

Sehwag's batting is such that he often skirts the boundaries of good fortune, playing with a cavalier spirit often at odds with the percentage-cricket that typifies the professional age. Yet, to suggest that he is a mere dasher is to ignore the remarkable consistency with which he produces match-winning, crowd-pleasing efforts.

His tussle with Justin Ontong exemplified the Sehwag ethos. South Africa's primary spin option in this match, Ontong had conceded just one run from his first two overs. He started the third over with an offbreak that jagged back to rap Sehwag on the front pad almost in line with off stump. No shot was offered, and if Simon Taufel had lifted his finger, Sehwag could have had few complaints.

But Taufel maintained a Sphinx-like indifference to the South African appeal, even as Sehwag moved away to recollect his thoughts. That was the line drawn, and drawn with cement. Strokes of staggering impudence followed immediately afterwards - huge chunks of marble being assembled, as it were. A waspish sting through cover was followed by a huge biff over midwicket when Ontong sent down a low full toss. The next ball went in the same direction, and when Ontong altered his line by coming round the wicket, Sehwag responded with a reverse sweep that sped to the fence quicker than most square-cuts.

A slightly chastened Ontong persisted with that line in his next over, and Sehwag pummelled the first delivery just over mid-on for four more. Ontong looked about him disbelievingly while Sehwag pottered about in his crease with the sauciness that can so infuriate befuddled opponents. That seemingly pre-meditated assault also utterly transformed the course of the final session after South Africa's bowlers had battled back from the initial assault.

They had been pushed onto the defensive quickly enough, after another drying-paint batting display from the lower order. This South African team appears to think that words like acceleration and impetus are best left to car manufacturers and dictionaries, and the 78 runs they eked out in 38 overs were disturbingly reminiscent of the late 1950s when teams almost killed off Test cricket with disgracefully negative tactics.

Occupation of the crease is a fine mantra to have, provided you make that occupation count with runs. The greatest rearguard actions in modern-day cricket - Ian Botham at Headingley in 1981, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid at this very ground three years ago - weren't engineered by unimaginative cowardly play, they were inspired by men who backed themselves to surmount incredible odds. All that South Africa did this morning was provide India with further evidence that they don't have the heart to make a concerted push for victory, not even with the advantage of the toss behind them.

The saddest aspect of it was the fact that Jacques Kallis and Shaun Pollock, two men who have been around long enough to know better, set such a poor example. Few expected Zander de Bruyn or Ontong to come in and blaze away, and their circumspection can only have increased by observing the excessive respect with which Kallis and Pollock played out bowling that was accurate rather than lethal.

India bowled beautifully with the new ball, but not one batsman attempted to rattle the bowlers with an aggressive shot or two. With runs so scarce, Sourav Ganguly even had the luxury of bowling himself for nine overs, in the course of which he knocked over Kallis with one that darted back.

India's batting had noticeably more urgency, with Sehwag laying the foundation for what is increasingly looking like another three-figure superstructure. And unless South Africa abandon the flair-less approach in the second innings, they deserve nothing more than to be interned in a mausoleum of Sehwag's making.

Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.