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Defensive India Lose Golden Opportunity

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It was a strange day at Cape Town. MS Dhoni finally won a toss and put South Africa in with conditions being ideal for fast bowling. Having come out of nowhere to blow South Africa away in Durban India had every right to feel that now with luck on their side they can show what they are capable of doing in helpful conditions at Newlands. It was their opportunity to inflict the kind of pain that they had suffered on the first day in Centurion and in Durban.

It was a stop-start first half of the day with intermittent rain and bad light punctuating play. South Africa used the situation to their advantage while India were left wondering what went wrong when there was help for the fast men all day long. The day started well for India and at the end of the first nine overs South Africa was 21 and had lost their captain Graeme Smith once again to Zaheer Khan. A light drizzle and inadequate light meant an early lunch and play continued in the afternoon for 12 more overs before bad light and some rain again halted play. South Africa was 61 for two at the end of 21 overs and the ball was seaming around and there was swing as well.

Then there was a short second break and when play resumed India had lost their discipline and they allowed South Africa to get back in the game. Amla was the aggressor as he took three boundaries off Khan’s first over after resumption. His aggression took South Africa past the 100 mark but it soon cost him his wicket and at 106 for 3 in 28.3 overs the bowlers could tell the captain that they were backing his decision to bowl first. From that point on South Africa added 126 runs for the loss of just one wicket and completely took away the honours for the day.

It wasn’t that India bowled badly—they beat the bat throughout the day with prodigious lateral movement. One thing though can be said with certainty that India didn’t bowl with intensity and they gave too many boundary balls. They did adjust to the wicket and bowled full as was needed on this surface but unlike Durban they could not get a vice-like grip on the game. The Indians were also appreciably down on pace and at 34 for two Dhoni perhaps didn’t attack sufficiently. The ball was darting around and with the kind of control his bowlers had displayed in Durban Dhoni could have gone for an attacking 7-2 field and made life difficult for the South Africans.

It’s difficult to say why the Indians were down on pace and even low on aggression after such a superb showing in Durban. If they were thinking on getting the ball in the right areas and sacrificed some 10 kph of speed for control then the tactic didn’t work. It would have been better to come out and bowl their heart out to send a strong message to the South African dressing room. The right areas can also be hit at the optimum speed and India’s move was baffling.

Apart from his first spell Zaheer was disappointing throughout the day. Harbhajan only played a holding role and the batsmen worked him around for singles. The rub of the green switched sides and unlike Durban it favoured the South Africans in Cape Town. The outside edges eluded the catching men and a leading edge went to no man’s land. Jacques Kallis batted superbly for his 81 not out but he survived a close lbw shout and also played and missed quite a few. His would be the key wicket on Monday. The new ball would be due in six overs and having largely wasted the first one India has to be spot on with the second. If they fail to use the second one and South Africa manages to survive then India would be in for a long and tough day. If things don’t go India’s way on Monday they would be left to rue the fact that a made-to-order opportunity was missed on Sunday.

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The Cobra Strikes In Mamba Land

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Durban will no longer be synonymous with a meek Indian capitulation. That India came out and defied all odds to leave South Africa in tatters at Kingsmead is perhaps the biggest confirmation of the fact that this team never gives up.

Durban has not been a happy hunting ground for India. Back in 1996 the Indian team had one of its worst defeats at Kingsmead where the fiery Allan Donald supported by the menacingly-accurate Shaun Pollock ran through the Indian batting line-up in both the innings. India could not last 40 overs in either innings and collapsed to 100 in the first and 66 in the second innings. It was not a high scoring game and yet India lost by a massive 328 runs.

On India’s last tour to South Africa in 2006, they came to Durban for the Boxing Day Test after having won the first Test comfortably at the Wanderers in Johannesburg. Almost a day’s play was lost to rain and bad light and India just had to survive about two sessions to eke out a draw and head to Cape Town maintaining their lead. South Africa hustled India in under two sessions on a rain interrupted day where a little more resistance from the top order would have made it much easier for the lower order to hang in there when the light was fading fast.

This time India came to Durban with not just its past history of struggling against the bounce of Kingsmead but also after a drubbing in the first Test at Centurion. There is no denying the fact that India got the worst of the conditions at Centurion. With a wicket that did much more on the first day than it did on any of the subsequent ones and despite a good batting performance in the second innings India lost by an innings and 25 runs.

Shaun Pollock was asked after Centurion: “One up, two to play. How difficult would it be for India to come back from here?” Pollock replied, “It’s massive. I really can’t see them coming back. When you watch their performance, just the four test wickets that they got in this match, I am not too sure where they are going to get the 20 wickets from.”

The South Africans can’t complain that India didn’t give them enough warning that things could change and that they could change drastically. In Nagpur earlier this year South Africa won the toss and put 558 runs on the board. Dale Steyn ran through the Indian line-up picking 7 for 51 in India’s first innings and then another three in the second to set up South Africa’s win by an innings and six runs.

The action then moved to Eden Gardens in Kolkata with India’s number one Test ranking at stake. South Africa won another important toss and they were coasting at 218 for 1, looking set to bat India out of the game. South Africa may have heard about and prepared for an Indian comeback in Kolkata but then nothing prepares you for the kind of madness that took place that day. South Africa slumped to 298 all out; at a crucial juncture they lost five middle-order wickets for the addition of four runs. Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, V V S Laxman, and M S Dhoni scored centuries as India declared at 643 for 6 and then bowled South Africa under 300 again to win by an innings and 57 runs.

That was in familiar conditions at home and this has been in alien conditions suiting the South Africans completely where India was also pegged back having lost another vital toss. Smith smiled on his luck and South Africa decided to insert India in. In overcast conditions India came out to combat the swing, seam and bounce that Steyn and Morne Morkel got on a fresh wicket that had a bit of moisture. It was a better batting effort but not enough to be out of the woods till the bowlers came and ripped open the Test.

If Centurion wasn’t a 136-run wicket, as the South Africans kept saying, then was Kingsmead a 131-run wicket on a sunny day when the bowlers got less assistance? Zaheer Khan led the attack brilliantly and the Indian team caught fabulously to take a very handy 74-run lead. The game, once again, seemed to be on an even keel when India was reduced to 56 for four. And then, like a colossus, V V S Laxman stood up and steered India to a lead of over 300 with his brilliant 96 on a wicket where the second highest score from either team in both innings was 39.

The way the Indians bowled as a unit is something South Africa would be wary of before heading to Cape Town. It was on the fourth morning when they gave nothing away that the South African team wilted under pressure. Runs were plugged from both ends as Sreesanth bowled his best spell of the tour and Harbhajan Singh bowled with such control that one wondered if he had the ball on a leash.

The abiding memory of the Test would be the dismissal of Jacques Kallis. Sreesanth got the ball to dart in from a length and venomously leap like a cobra towards Kallis’ head. Kallis was airborne and like a supreme athlete his body was arched like a human C but he couldn’t do anything but glove the ball with sheer survival instinct. The ball ballooned to Sehwag at gully and Kallis was on his way. Allan Donald said on television that it was a ball that had Kallis’ name on it and what made it such an impossible one to deal with was the fact that it did so much so quickly that the batsman had absolutely no time.

South Africa was a cock-a-hoop after Centurion and they were undone by an absolutely brilliant performance by the Indian team at Durban. All this bodes well for Cape Town, where the South Africans will be smarting from the defeat at Kingsmead and the Indians will be well aware that this could be their opportunity to finally win a test series in the African nation. The return of Gautam Gambhir augurs well for the visitors and this time it will be the South Africans who’ll need to do a bit of soul searching.

(This piece was first done for The Sunday Guardian website on December 30, 2010)

Magical Durban Test On A Knife’s Edge

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It’s still anybody’s game. Although India are certainly better placed having accounted for three wickets and still having a cushion of enough runs (South Africa need 192 more to win) to get the remaining seven. The pendulum would have swung heavily in India’s favour had Cheteshwar Pujara been able to hold on to a very tough chance when Kallis was yet to open his account and South Africa were 86 for three.

In the 11 balls that Kallis played before getting off the mark he survived three anxious moments. After that tough chance Zaheer Khan was pretty close to getting his man when Kallis almost nicked the first ball of the 21st over of the innings and was then lucky that his mistimed pull on the fourth ball did not carry to Tendulkar at mid on.

South Africa had earlier got off to a flying start with Smith in particular finding the boundary easily. The new ball did not work for India and South Africa raced to 60 for no loss in 12 overs. The 15 overs after that were fruitful and three wickets fell for the addition of 51 runs. For India it is a game of patience now and they would need to bowl in good areas consistently and then take their chances. If they stick to a plan and make it difficult for South Africa to get runs then they have a better chance of making the batsmen commit errors. The first hundred runs have come rather easily for the South Africans and India can take better control of proceedings if they can stem the flow of runs.

In the morning South Africa got off to a perfect start when Morne Morkel removed Pujara in the first full over of the day with just a run added to the overnight score. MS Dhoni walked to the crease and played with the same assuredness that he has displayed throughout in this series. VVS Laxman, who was looking in supreme touch, and Dhoni put on 48 quick runs to extend the lead above 200. South Africa again came back in the game strongly with two quick wickets and Laxman on 47 was again in the difficult situation of taking his team to some kind of security. And once again Laxman did the business brilliantly.

It was just a matter of finding someone to give him support and Laxman would have done the rest and this time that support came from Zaheer. The partnership started with Zaheer trying to heave a couple of deliveries in typical cross-batted and lower order style. Then he calmed down and there is all the reason to believe that it was the presence of Laxman that led to Zaheer applying himself. The partnership added 70 invaluable runs before Zaheer perished in the post lunch session. Ishant fell in quick succession and running out of partners Laxman was the last to go four runs short of his century but having taken his team a couple of runs over 300. It promises to be a match winning and series levelling innings. If that happens then it will be another addition to the priceless gems that he has produced with amazing consistency.

India have been at the top of the ICC Test rankings for almost a full year now but having played most of their cricket in the subcontinent South Africa was always going to be their first real test. No matter what they say India needed a couple of good tour games and then some luck. Their plight was exacerbated by the fact that they got to bat when the wicket was at its liveliest in Centurion and perhaps in Durban as well.

It no longer sounds like an excuse because now India have bowled South Africa out for 131 when the sun was out and the wicket was playing much better than what is was when India got 205 in their first innings in Durban. Harbhajan Singh saying that India was well-prepared for the series but not for a wet wicket has much more weight now as they batted well in the second innings in Centurion and have bowled and caught spectacularly in Durban on Monday. Whether India was undercooked is now debatable. Monday’s performance in the field was worthy of their number one ranking. They’ve come from being miles behind after the hammering in Centurion to sting South Africa badly. It remains to be seen whether they can turn the wound they inflicted in the first innings into a fatal blow in the second but regardless they have at least maintained their reputation by bowling South Africa out for 131 in decent batting conditions.

The bowling performance in Durban on Monday was delightful. It was as if Durban had turned into Eden Gardens where India squared the series after being blown away in Nagpur the last time the South Africans travelled to India. As has been the case with most of India’s superb bowling performances in the last few seasons it was Zaheer who gave a lion-hearted performance. For the first hour or so he toiled single-handedly taking out both the openers and being miserly with runs. The runs leaked from the other end though as Sreesanth was all over the place in his first spell. Then came the piece of luck that comes when whatever you touch is turning to gold and Jacques Kallis was short of his crease at the non-striker’s end when a firm hit from Amla brushed past Ishant Sharma’s hand and dislodged the bails. The short session became sweeter as Sreesanth produced a ripper of a delivery to get rid of de Villiers for a duck. The score at lunch read 74 for 4.

The magic started post lunch when Zaheer came to bowl his second spell and Harbhajan his first. Pressure was building from both ends and four runs came in three overs. Harbhajan struck with the first ball of his second over and trapped Amla leg before with a straighter one. From the other end Zaheer bowled two top quality overs to make Ashwell Prince unsure before nailing him in the third. Two more tight overs followed and then Harbhajan produced a magic over, the kind he does when he gets a wicket early in his spell. Steyn nicked a straighter one and Dravid took an unbelievably good catch at first slip. Four balls later Pujara at short leg took a sharp chance to send Harris back; South Africa sank to 103 for 8.

Then Harbhajan took a beauty at fine leg off Sharma’s bowling to end a small partnership between Morkel and Boucher. Next over he completed the formalities by getting Tsotsobe. South Africa 131 all out in 37.2 overs.

In the second innings India was coasting at 42 for no loss after nine overs and the South African bowling was looking flat. Steyn was out of the attack having conceded 21 runs in three overs and the openers were looking settled. Sehwag then went for a tempter well wide of his off stump and edged it to Boucher. Next over Vijay got a nasty ball from Morkel that reared up towards his head from a tad short of a length and had him fending in an awkward fashion. The ball ballooned up and Amla took an easy catch at short leg.

Then there were two moments of indiscretion from India’s most-experienced campaigners. And it was disappointing to see. The very next over in rather uncharacteristic fashion Rahul Dravid chased a wide one from Tsotsobe and nicked it to the keeper. From 42 for no loss and South Africa looking hapless it became 48 for 3 with India under pressure. Laxman walked out to join Tendulkar who was batting on four having cracked a short delivery from Morkel to the point boundary to get off the mark.

Tendulkar does not have a good record in Durban and it is his poor performances in Kingsmead that are mainly responsible for his overall record in South Africa being below par. The partnership lasted just 16 balls and Tendulkar was snaffled at third slip of the first ball of Steyn’s second spell. It wasn’t an edge it was rather an uncontrolled steer from the face of the blade. Steyn did him in with pace as Tendulkar was late for the stroke and couldn’t get on top of it for the drive. The shot was on but with just a few deliveries under his belt Tendulkar was not accustomed to the wicket that had quickened up a bit.

Laxman and Pujara took the score to 92 at stumps on day two with some sensible batting. Tendulkar has had a poor Test with the bat after a long time and with the kind of form he is in his presence would have made a lot of difference to the team in either innings. That’s why they say that sometimes good form can be your undoing as you tend to play aggressively without first getting used to the wicket.

Despite the great bowling performance on Monday the argument for poor preparation for the tour remains. Teams come with detailed plans and they plot well in advance on how to bring down the opponent in his own den but India seems to be an exception. It is only the television channels who seem to do the preparation by building the series up as India’s Final Frontier. How on earth do you otherwise explain the inclusion of journeymen like Jaidev Unadkat, Wriddhiman Saha, and Umesh Yadav. Was this really a tour where two uncapped players and the third a veteran of one Test had to be unleashed?

Tendulkar’s 50th century is definitely a landmark to be celebrated in isolation but it does nothing to ease the pain of a complete drubbing in the first Test. The wicket at Centurion was a perfect surface when India batted second and they got off to a great start before throwing it away. Having seen off the new ball threat Sehwag blew it away by being rash. Gambhir, Dravid, and Dhoni were wickets South Africa earned by their brilliant bowling but India was dented by a couple of casual dismissals.

Pujara should ideally have been drafted in during the New Zealand series and he would have been battle ready come South Africa. From the looks of it he seems to have both skill and temperament and he needs an extended run to be judged. MS Dhoni has shown guts in all his outings and the top six should take a leaf out of his book.

If India square the series in Durban then both teams will have all to play for in Cape Town. And if South Africa manage to chase the total then the series would be sealed in Durban and Cape Town would be a battle for the Number 1 ranking.

Skipping The Homework And Failing The Test?

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Seldom is the contrast of how much you appear to care for your wicket and how much the opposition cares about it is so pronounced as in the case of Virender Sehwag. After bowling superbly to have figures of 12.4 overs, 5 maidens, 20 runs and five wickets Morne Morkel came to the press conference on Thursday and said that Sehwag’s wicket (picked up by Dale Steyn) was crucial.

Compare this to Sehwag coming out to bat in overcast conditions on the first day of a major series where an initial blow can set the tone for the series. He’s up against two nippy fast bowlers who are getting ample assistance from the weather and the wicket and he’s got to give his team a start. I know he plays like that and when it comes off then it is spectacular. Thursday afternoon though it didn’t come off and it looked mighty ugly. He let two balls go in Steyn’s first over and didn’t face any when Morkel bowled the second. And then without even having felt the ball on his bat and perhaps without even looking at the field and with his feet in no position to play the ball he went after a delivery that was sailing safely outside his off stump. There was a lazy connection and the ball went straight to Hashim Amla at a slightly-short third man and the South African team was all smiles. The plan had worked.

Then Morkel worked on Gambhir and made him smell some leather but he survived that spell and Dravid was looking fine. Any respite was short-lived as Morkel came back from the other end. That second spell of Morkel and the one bowled by Steyn after tea snuffed India. Morkel removed Gambhir and Dravid in succession and Steyn boxed out Laxman and Tendulkar. Tendulkar who hit eight boundaries in his 36 was the only batsman who looked in some sort of comfort. The assistance was there for the bowlers but by no means was it a 136-run wicket. Both Laxman and Tendulkar perished playing across the line to a full ball.

An exceptional bowling performance by South Africa on the first day has now been backed by superb batting on the second and India has lost each and every session of play in the first two days. The Indian bowlers could not extract anything out of the wicket and also the South African batsmen played commandingly. Only Harbhajan looked like taking a wicket but with a flop support cast his impact has been limited. South Africa has scored 366 runs at a run rate of 4.20 with the loss of just two wickets. And when a team scores at that run rate for an entire day of a Test match then the opposition’s bowling attack is termed as rubbish.

India was lucky that after Sehwag’s dismissal Gambhir got a reprieve but South Africa was in the mood where luck didn’t matter and Morkel nailed him when he came from the other end. Tendulkar looked sublime and he too was lucky when an inside edge missed his stumps and ran away for four but he too wasn’t allowed to make much of his luck.

This now brings me to the Board of Control for Cricket in India. The fans in India care a bit too much, creating adverse pressure for the team, while the Board gives a damn. It is ironical that Gary Kirsten and some senior players had to ask the Board in order to go ahead of others to acclimatise. Should not the Board have asked for two tour games ahead of this all important Test series? It is only by virtue of becoming the number one Test team in the world that we’ve played more Tests at home as according to the previous schedule we had no Tests against South Africa at home when we played two and ditto against Australia at home. Those were ODI series’ where on request the South African and the Australian Board acquiesced.

Harbhajan Singh though has said that the team was well-prepared but not for a damp pitch where the ball did all kinds of tricks. He added that a tour game would not have made much of a difference as that would have been on anything but a damp surface. On India’s last tour to South Africa they had lost all their ODIs before the Test series. Then there was a four-day tour game in Potchefstroom which India won by 96 runs and then went on to win in Johannesburg. Ganguly returned to the Indian team in Potch and made 83 in the first innings to revive India in partnership with Irfan Pathan who scored an unbeaten 111. Coach Greg Chappell called Potch as the ‘turning point’ of the tour. Was a tour game too much of a luxury this time around? Tour games are important as they give you match practice and they also reveal form and impact. And how did Unadkat make it to the team? He and Umesh Yadav I am told are selection blunders. South Africa was well prepared as they came out with a plan and executed it. India was caught in between; not sure about their foot movement they were pushed to the backfoot and then caught napping when the full ball came. South African batsmen came forward easily and also played better from the crease. It pays to do your homework.

All that is behind us now and faulty planning for overseas tours is the story of Indian cricket. The silver lining, if any, is that this Indian team has shown character in the last couple of seasons and has come from behind on many occasions with the odds stacked against them. They would now need a herculean effort to get back into this contest and salvage something out of it because at the moment it does not look like the teams are evenly matched.

That Was A Number 1 Performance

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“We wanted to be at the top of the table; we know we have the players to keep being No 1,” Harbhajan said after the game. “We are very happy and it’s fantastic to win the way we did. The heart was pumping in the end.” The hunger and the controlled aggression of the Indian team was visible in the game throughout. This has been as good a win as any; but spare a thought for Hashim Amla, who stood defiantly not out on 123; and I guess it was that thing for which the word in cricketing lexicon is ‘unbeaten’ as he was hardly ever beaten by a bowler or by whatever else was happening at the other end or at the stands that were bubbling with expectation. Amla batted with assurance and poise for more than 8 hours without giving a hint of a chance. You’ve got to doff your hat for such an unbelievable performance.

As for turnarounds, this is an even bigger one than the famous Indian victory in Perth after the debacle of Sydney. Going in to Perth India knew that Sydney was a close match and lady luck was not in their favour as the two most-evident umpiring mistakes dented India at vital stages of the game. India was convincingly-thrashed in Nagpur where South Africa amassed 558 and Steyn struck both with the new and the old ball to destroy India for 233. India made 319 in the second innings and South Africa won by an innings and 6 runs. India could manage just 6 wickets and climbing from 6 to 20 with the same set of bowlers looked impossible. A headline summed the debacle; “No crumbs of comfort for India’

After Nagpur, when Smith was reminded that the last time when they were one up after another Steyn special in Ahmedabad, they headed to a rank turner in Kanpur—where some great batting by Sourav Ganguly and the spinners on a responsive surface helped draw the series—he said: “So are you telling me there’s a guy with a rake at the Eden Gardens? India have more control over the conditions. We need to focus on the specifics…prepare and execute our gameplans.”

In Nagpur, once Amla and Kallis got in, the runs came nice and easy and they batted beautifully when the surface was the best and then put India in after two days of batting. An exceptional new ball burst by Steyn exposed the soft belly of the Indian middle-order; there was no Dravid and no Laxman and Tendulkar fell to the ball of the day.

At the Eden Gardens, though, India did not need a rake and they even lost the toss and were staring down the barrel when South Africa were coasting at 218 for 1; with Kallis and the entire batting line-up having Duminy at number 7 to follow. The wicket had no gremlins and not a single ball kicked up like it did when Dhoni got dismissed in India’s first innings in Nagpur. That makes it a special turnaround because it takes some character to come out of a demoralising defeat like Nagpur and then go on and inflict an even bigger damage to the rival camp.

South Africa would know that they got bowled out twice on a surface that was good for batting even on the fifth day and that India took the second innings wickets without the crafty Zaheer Khan operating on the last day. They would also know that about a day in this match was lost to rain and bad light. In the end India won the match by an innings and 57 runs despite having their backs pinned to the wall. When a team wins like this then the number 1 rank has meaning and it seems to belong.

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