At Cape Town, January 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 2007. South Africa won by five wickets. Toss: India. Test debut: P L. Harris.
A compelling Test series ended with the best contest of the three. After winning the toss and batting on an uncharacteristically dry pitch, India finished the first day on an imposing 254 for three. Even when they then subsided to 414, few imagined that they would contrive to lose the game and the series. Yet the thought of returning home with a share of the spoils proved India's undoing. A defensive mentality consumed them. They gambled by opening the batting with wicketkeeper Karthik, who was replacing the unfit Dhoni (bruised fingers and a chest infection), and the decision paid rich dividends with two wicketless sessions and an opening stand of 153 before Karthik was unluckily given out caught at silly point off the first ball after tea. But still South Africa were struggling.
Wasim Jaffer's controlled hundred, which ended when Kallis took his 100th Test catch, was backed up down the order, at least to No. 7 where the demoted Sehwag contributed a quick 40 before he was well caught by Ntini, running in from deep square. Several batsmen, though, were guilty of lapses in concentration as South Africa successfully tried to strangle the runs. What Smith termed an "Eden Gardens pitch" demanded an Eden Gardens strategy, and the bowlers (and fielders) knuckled down well to the task of keeping the runs to a minimum.
Pollock was back to his best for the first time in three years, nagging away at off stump for extended periods, at a good pace. Steyn conceded just over two an over, bowling wide of off, while the debutant left-arm spinner Paul Harris confounded the doubters with a mature display, which brought him four wickets against the world's best players of spin. His style looked awkward: flat-footed, round-armed, rather like a right-armer bowling left-arm for a bit of fun. But he landed an inordinate number of deliveries in the right place, and thoroughly deserved his reward.
South Africa's reply was a mixed bag - positive, aggressive strokeplay combined with catch-up cricket once too many wickets had fallen. Smith continued his belligerent return to form with 94, starting with a top-edged hook off Zaheer Khan's first ball of the innings which flew for six. Smith later had to counter the occasionally extravagant spin of Kumble from the rough outside off with daring footwork and high-risk sweeps. Amla lived a charmed but equally swashbuckling life, then Kallis and Boucher nursed the total to within sniffing distance of India's with half-centuries that contained more nudges than blasts.
A lead of 41 was not particularly significant, but India seemed uncertain what to do next. Their only obvious concession to winning the match was the return of Sehwag to the top of the order, but that backfired instantly when, for the umpteenth time, he slashed at a wide half-volley. Jaffer followed two balls later, gloving a brutish lifter from Ntini to slip, and India - at six for two - were suddenly on the back foot, and forced to concentrate on saving face, the Test and the series.
India's efforts weren't helped by a mix-up which saw Tendulkar halted on his way to the crease at the fall of the second wicket. He had spent 18 minutes off the field the previous day, and only 13 of them had been used up, so he was not permitted to bat at that point. Tendulkar was sent back into the pavilion and Ganguly, who was not even dressed in whites, was asked to bat as Laxman was caught with his pants down - literally - in the toilet. Some seven minutes passed while Ganguly dressed himself and made his way to the crease, during which time Daryl Harper explained to Smith that, as the Indian team had only just been told of the problem, an appeal for Timed Out "would not be entertained".
A rattled Ganguly retained enough composure to make 46, which made him India's top-scorer in the series, but when he fell to a gully catch his side fell apart. As brilliant as Dravid and Tendulkar are, they froze at the prospect of defeat in a contest they had dominated for the first three days, and ultimately this cost them the game. Tendulkar scraped together a desperately unconvincing 14 from 62 balls before Steyn wrapped up the tail, helped by an error from Asad Rauf which allowed him a seventh ball at Patel, with which he polished off the innings. It set up a run-chase of 211 on a pitch by now offering extravagant turn.
South Africa lost Amla to the final ball of the fourth day, and when play resumed next morning Smith produced a masterstroke by promoting Pollock to No. 4, instead of the more conventional Kallis, who might have allowed the bowlers to settle quickly and dictate terms. Instead Pollock removed any lingering doubts with a whirlwind 37, adding 72 with the determined Smith. This allowed Kallis and Prince to take their time even though three hours were lost.
Man of the Match: G. C. Smith.
Man of the Series: S. M. Pollock.
Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency