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The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones

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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)

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Eden Gardens And Post-Tea Ghouls

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India was almost there to make it two days in a row for them to get on top of South Africa and turn the Test match at Eden Gardens decisively in their favour but for the last six overs in which three quick wickets fell and the match was alive again. It has been a riveting contest for two days and India fought their way back into the Test valiantly from a seemingly-improbable position yesterday.

It was the magical combination of Eden Gardens and the Indian bowling attack, which had looked so out of sorts in Nagpur and for the better part of two sessions on Sunday, that turned the game on its head. With South Africa at 218 for 1 and both Amla and the debutant Petersen having reached their individual hundreds Sunday gave no intimation of the kind of dramatic turnarounds that have become part of the folklore of this magnificent venue.

Zaheer took over from a confidence-boosting spell by Ishant and got rid of both the centurions either side of tea. After tea when Harbhajan Singh was brought from the other end there were two new batsmen yet to open their account at the crease and two potent attacking bowlers operating in tandem.

The tension was palpable. You could see the destiny of the day and perhaps the match and the series precariously balanced as Harbhajan tossed the ball, got drift and some bounce. AB de Villiers used his feet to quickly reach to the pitch of a ball to defend it and then both Kallis and de Villiers stepped out to hit Harbhajan over the in-field for boundaries. Someone in the commentary box spoke about Harbhajan bowling just one maiden in Nagpur and that the pressure would not build if he went for runs. The fours came in the 60th and the 62nd over and they were both clean good hits. With two new batsmen, yet to reach double figures, stepping out to hit him over the top, Harbhajan needed no further indication to plot yet another episode of his serial killings. He kept at it.

Kallis and de Villiers were trying to upset the rhythm of Harbhajan; but the Turbanator is a sly fox with a good understanding of when to go for the jugular and from the moment Laxman took a blinder to send Kallis packing he was unstoppable. Harbhajan with a wicket in his bag is an entirely different proposition and this one was long due and Laxman did his bit to pluck a beauty running backwards after having dropped a sitter at first slip earlier. That was the beginning of the end.

It was the first ball of the 66th over and then there was the Harbhajan Singh magic show. With the first and second ball of his next over from round the stumps Harbhajan had both the south paws, in Prince and Duminy, dead in front of the wicket playing for the turn when the ball went straight. The batsmen plonked their pad to take the ball outside the line and play for the turn but the ball drifted in and pitched in line and went straight to have them both bamboozled and looking like ducks. Steyn survived the hat-trick ball by doing nothing silly; it was another lovely topspinner and he was on the backfoot with the ball missing the edge and the off stump by inches. It was pandemonium and de Villiers could not take it so he ran himself out. Zaheer picked the ball near short cover and in one smooth motion turned and sent it ripping towards the non-striker’s end to find the diving de Villiers short. Steyn looking gunned at the other end.

Today was good for India as their batting had not clicked in Nagpur and Gambhir looked solid with Sehwag and 73 runs came in just 9.2 overs. Gambhir’s run-out was unfortunate and though Sehwag compensated by making a big hundred himself he still would be kicking himself for a priced scalp like Gambhir needlessly getting out cheaply. Nine more runs and as solid as he was looking Vijay was back in the hut with India 82 for two.

Tendulkar joined Sehwag and tapped the first ball he played, a 147 kph full delivery outside off from Morkel, to point for a single. That was the beginning of an assured partnership in which Tendulkar gave another display of his class and his mastery. He played the ball with that natural and intriguing intimacy that he has developed in the last few seasons; something that can be metaphorically-likened to a completely in-sync romantic couple at ease with each other. He was solid in defence and gave no bowler even a hint of a chance. It was just beautiful batting.

Sehwag contributed 119 to the partnership and Tendulkar 106 and the runs came at a fair clip of 4.31 runs per over. The partnership was worth 249 runs and if Sehwag gave a few chances along with his exquisite strokes there was always the solid presence of Tendulkar to guide the partnership.

Alas, the twist in the tail came towards the end of the day and took some sheen off a day full of wonderful batting. Sehwag was the first to go, with a half-hearted drive to Duminy, caught by Prince at cover; the camera for a split second showing the anguish that it caused Tendulkar. With the partnership broken Harris went round the wicket in the next over and Tendulkar made his first mistake of the day and was caught in the slips. Steyn then uprooted the off stump of Badrinath and the game was more evenly poised than it was just half an hour before stumps.

The lead is only 46 right now and India should keep it in mind that the drama surely happens post-tea and if they can bat with application for two sessions before tea then it would not matter if the post tea ghosts of Eden Gardens surface again tomorrow.

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