'Having made all the right moves on the field, Graeme Smith then played some lovely
strokes against the new ball'
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A disciplined and committed effort in the field gave South Africa every
chance of winning this series, helped immeasurably by a post-lunch batting
performance that illustrated all the worst qualities of this Indian
line-up. Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis were both magnificent in the
tourniquet role, and with India's best batsmen treating Paul Harris like
he was cloned from Bishan Singh Bedi and Hedley Verity, the complexion of
the match changed utterly before tea was even brewed.
Graeme Smith was also able to call on the sheer pace and aggression of
Dale Steyn to mop up the tail, a task he accomplished admirably with a
little assistance from match officials who couldn't count to six. Steyn's
intervention cut short a courageous rearguard action from Dinesh Karthik,
who batted with inventiveness and purpose that shamed more illustrious
South Africa would have been buoyed as soon as they walked onto the park
and waited for the Indian openers. Instead of the Wasim Jaffer-Karthik
combination that had batted so well for 153 in the first innings, they
looked up to see Virender Sehwag walking out to resume a disastrous
partnership that hadn't gone past 25 on this tour. By attempting to fix
what wasn't broken, India got what they deserved, with Steyn and Makhaya
Ntini having both openers back in the pavilion long before the board
ticked into double figures.
Sehwag had batted without much discomfort from No.6 in the first innings,
but against the new ball that does a little, he increasingly resembles a
drunk trying to stumble to the washroom. Those that say that it was a
brave gamble that failed conveniently forget that Karthik's batting had
shown there was no need for a wager with fate in the first place.
But having endured that horror start, and the miscommunication that
resulted in Sourav Ganguly walking to the crease a full six minutes after
Jaffer's dismissal, India batted purposefully till lunch to leave
themselves in command. Ganguly was struck once again, but shrugged it off
to bat with the assurance and fluency that typified his halcyon years
higher up India's order.
His tame exit - another dead-bat steer into the cordon - triggered the
most bizarre passage of play. Harris kept pitching into the rough as
expected, but neither Dravid nor Sachin Tendulkar showed any inclination
to take him on. Given the excessive respect paid to him, you wondered at
times who the legends were, and who the novice playing his first Test.
Between Ganguly's dismissal and tea, India eked out a pitiful 31 in 19.4
overs, four of the runs coming in leg byes. And as is often the case, the
run drought played right into South African hands, with three wickets
falling in the process. Harris bowled 22 overs on the trot, exhibiting
great control and composure, but neither Dravid nor Tendulkar went down
the pitch or did anything else to upset his length and make him think
These are not ordinary batsmen. They are two of Indian cricket's batting
trinity - the other, Sunil Gavaskar, watched in bemusement from the
commentary box - and men with a proud record of excellence in every
cricket-playing country in the world. To see them flounder against a
debutant was surreal, and you shuddered to think what kind of message it
sent to the batsmen waiting their turn in the dressing room.
Karthik showed how it could be done later, with a couple of cuts, and an
audacious reverse sweep out of the rough, but by then the momentum had
long since shifted. And when the bowlers weren't spot-on, India happily
shot themselves in the metatarsals with running between wickets that would
have embarrassed a pensioners' side.
The mix-up between Tendulkar and VVS Laxman was an absolute shambles and spoke volumes about the Indian attitude
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The mix-up between Tendulkar and VVS Laxman was an absolute shambles, with
one man turning without bothering to see what the fielder was doing, and
the other pausing halfway through the second run. Though it was a
borderline decision, such headless-chicken cricket didn't merit any
Zaheer Khan's run out was as wretched. Karthik had already touched down at
the bowler's end, and could clearly be heard yelling out 'Stay' at least
twice. What possessed Zaheer to turn around and set off as though it was
the last ball of a one-day game, only he can explain.
In the midst of such chaos and mindlessness, Smith captained with
tremendous awareness and poise. Ntini was held back in the awareness that
he might leak runs, and the less speedy duo of Pollock and Kallis reined
the game in beautifully. And once Harris showed signs of fatigue, the
tactics were changed again, with the accent on blasting out the tail with
Having made all the right moves on the field, he then played some lovely
strokes against the new ball before settling down to the serious business
of surviving Anil Kumble. On this pitch, scoring 156 more will still be an
ordeal, especially once the ball softens and the pitch gets more abrasive.
Two seasons ago, his resolute unbeaten 125, combined with a fine farewell
74 from Gary Kirsten, won South Africa a share of the spoils in New
Zealand. If he can find an ally tomorrow, the prize will be even greater.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo