Absorbing spectacle

We’ve done it... Harbhajan Singh is ecstatic after taking the last South African wicket.-PICS: K. R. DEEPAK

A minimum of nine balls remained when Harbhajan Singh found South African No. 11 Morne Morkel in front of his stumps. For 76 minutes Morkel had stayed with the heroic Hashim Amla, raising hope among the tourist that an elusive series win in India and the No. 1 ranking may well be realised. By S. Ram Mahesh.

The mystery surrounding the Eden Gardens pitch grew curiouser and curiouser as the second Test drew near. It was all a little difficult to keep up with. Were there directives from the BCCI to the curator for a turning track? Was there a stinging repartee? Were there denials and recanting? And finally, were there platitudes that the nature of a wicket can’t be changed overnight? No one really knew, although much was reported faithfully.

Then, mystery of mysteries, the wicket turned out to be everything one can ask of a Test pitch. The most it could be faulted for was a lack of assistance, by way of turn, for the spinners on the fifth day. But this was partly due to a weather-shortened fourth day, which reduced wear and tear; crucially, the strip had bounce, the hallmark of a fine cricket wicket because it assists every discipline, spin bowling included.

First-rate wickets invariably produce first-rate contests, for they level the battle between bat and ball. Consider Eden Gardens’ penchant for the dramatic, and it’s no surprise the second Test between India and South Africa was such an absorbing spectacle that culminated in a finish for the ages. A minimum of nine balls remained when Harbhajan Singh, his shins sore with the pressure they had borne, found South African No. 11 Morne Morkel in front of his stumps. For 76 minutes Morkel had stayed with the heroic Hashim Amla, raising hope among the tourist that an elusive series win in India and the No. 1 ranking may well be realised.

When the umpire decided Morkel was in indeed leg before wicket, the 25000-crowd at Eden Gardens screamed cathartically. Harbhajan made for the Press box, eager to stick it to the pundits that had questioned his credentials.

Fabulous four... V. V. S. Laxman, M. S. Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag (below) scored centuries for India.-

As he later revealed, Harbhajan didn’t fancy being portrayed, along with his captain M. S. Dhoni, by a television channel as two of the ‘Three Idiots’. Stung by the criticism, the off-spinner had delivered when it mattered. Leg-spinner Amit Mishra may have got the three big South African wickets — Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, and A. B. de Villiers — but it was Harbhajan who was the most consistent threat in the South African second innings. In the absence of Zaheer Khan, who could bowl only six overs in the second innings before a muscle strain forced him off the field, Harbhajan was magnificent.

His eight wickets were richly deserved — they were central to India’s series-levelling win, a win that also ensured M. S. Dhoni’s men retained the No.1 ranking.

“The whole game I have been very relaxed and I knew that if I bowled in the right areas I would create the opportunities,” said Harbhajan. “I was very focussed and I knew what I was doing and I knew my plans. I wanted to pitch the ball up. There are then a lot of options — leg before wicket or caught at bat-pad, at silly-point or in the slips. That is what I was trying to do by keeping things simple.”

No praise can be too high for Amla. In the series he was at the crease for nearly 23-and-a-half hours and 1033 deliveries. Each of his three innings was at least a century: the first was an unbeaten 253 that enabled the Nagpur victory; the third was an unbeaten 123 that nearly saved the Kolkata Test and won the series for South Africa. Although he said after the second Test that he was tired, he never looked fatigued in the middle. His concentration was supreme, allowing him to follow the plans he had made for the tour. Touring batsmen unaccustomed to batting for long periods against spin tend to thrust at the ball when they fail to read it out of the hand; some try and play it off the wicket, but unless the delivery is sufficiently short or the batsman has remarkable bat-speed, this is a dangerous game to play. Amla had neither of these faults. He read nearly every delivery from the hand, both its length and its spin. His precise footwork ensured he was in the appropriate position to handle the delivery. Against Harbhajan, much like Kallis, he moved to off-stump. Off-breaks on the line of off-stump were to him deliveries on his pads.

But no batsman can estimate with certainty how much a delivery will turn; so even Amla was at times defeated by the extent of turn, mostly Mishra’s. But he didn’t follow the turn with his hands. That is to say he didn’t push at the ball. His attitude to playing spin was most refreshing. Asked about his thoughts as first he and Wayne Parnell and then he and Morkel defied India, Amla said, “We were enjoying it more than anything. I took a lot of confidence from Morne and Parney (Parnell) who told me they were more comfortable at certain ends so that made my job easier trying to farm the strike. It just was a lovely experience. The intensity towards the back end there was fantastic. It got more and more tense but we enjoyed it.”

Amla, in South Africa’s first innings on the first day, had nearly batted his side into an invulnerable position. With debutant Alviro Petersen, who stroked the ball with uncommon style and confidence for a man playing his first Test, Amla took South Africa to 218 for one. But Zaheer had Petersen caught behind for 100 before snaring Amla with a bouncer. Credit for Amla’s wicket must also be given to Ishant Sharma, who had bothered the 26-year-old with sharp, short deliveries in a nasty spell. It was Amla’s only dismissal of the series, and South Africa subsequently collapsed.

V. V .S. Laxman (143 not out) and M. S. Dhoni (132 not out) ensured India succeeded where South Africa had failed, adding an unbroken 259 after it appeared that the gains earned by Virender Sehwag (165) and Sachin Tendulkar (106) might be squandered. It was the second instance of four Indian batsmen scoring centuries in an innings. Each was significant: Sehwag provided both thrust and substance, allowing India to get off to a flyer and then build rapidly; Tendulkar gave stability, ensuring Sehwag had the ideal straight man for his antics; Laxman offered reliability and a touch of magic, nurturing India’s innings during an anxious phase; Dhoni tendered the support Laxman deserved before exploding. Both the number of runs and the rate at which they were scored ensured India had enough time, despite over 60 overs being lost on the fourth day, to complete an innings victory. South Africa’s catching let the team down: they fluffed four catches and a stumping; Duminy’s miss at slip with Sehwag on 47, Morkel the bowler, was the most expensive in terms of runs conceded after the chance, but they were all costly.

Hashim Amla... Man of the Match and Man of the Series.-

South African captain Smith, who had played the Test with a broken finger, gave India credit. “You need to give India credit today for this Test for the way they have performed,” he said. “They have got guys that have played in these conditions, they have a lot of experience and they are going to be very competitive here in India. But South Africa has achieved some incredible results in the last two-three years. It has done what other teams haven’t done for 17-20 years. The fact that we have been able to come and draw (1-1) in India is a credit in itself. If you look at recent stats and recent records of teams that have come here not many teams have been able to push India like we have been able to push them in these conditions. So that is a positive for us and a credit to our character.”

THE SCORES

South Africa — 1st innings: G. Smith b Zaheer 4; A. Petersen c Dhoni b Zaheer 100; H. Amla c Dhoni b Zaheer 114; J. Kallis c Laxman b Harbhajan 10; A. B. de Villiers (run out) 12; A. Prince lbw b Harbhajan 1; J. P. Duminy lbw b Harbhajan 0; D. Steyn lbw b Mishra 5; P. Harris c Dhoni b Ishant 1; W. Parnell lbw b Zaheer 12; M. Morkel (not out) 11; Extras (b-1, lb-4, nb-11, w-10) 26. Total: 296.

Fall of wickets: 1-9, 2-218, 3-229, 4-251, 5-253, 6-253, 7-254, 8-255, 9-261.

India bowling: Zaheer 22-5-90-4; Ishant 18-3-67-1; Mishra 21-3-70-1; Harbhajan 24-2-64-3.

India — 1st innings: G. Gambhir (run out) 25; V. Sehwag c Prince b Duminy 165; M. Vijay c de Villiers b Morkel 7; S. Tendulkar c Kallis b Harris 106; V. V. S. Laxman (not out) 143; S. Badrinath b Steyn 1; A. Mishra c Kallis b Morkel 28; M. S. Dhoni (not out) 132; Extras (b-6, lb-9, nb-8, w-13) 36. Total (for six wkts., decl.): 643.

Fall of wickets: 1-73, 2-82, 3-331, 4-335, 5-336, 6-384.

South Africa bowling: Steyn 30-5-115-1; Morkel 26-3-115-2; Parnell 20-1-103-0; Kallis 12-1-40-0; Harris 50-5-182-1; Duminy 15-0-73-1.

South Africa — 2nd innings: G. Smith lbw b Mishra 20; A. Petersen c Badrinath b Harbhajan 21; H. Amla (not out) 123; J. Kallis c Dhoni b Mishra 20; A. Prince c Ishant b Harbhajan 23; A. B. de Villiers lbw b Mishra 3; J. P. Duminy lbw b Harbhajan 6; D. Steyn lbw b Harbhajan 1; W. Parnell c Harbhajan b Ishant 22; P. Harris c sub (Karthik) b Ishant 4; M. Morkel lbw b Harbhajan 12; Extras (b-6, lb-5, nb-18, w-1, pen-5) 35. Total: 290.

Fall of wickets: 1-36, 2-54, 3-111, 4-158, 5-164, 6-172, 7-180, 8-250, 9-264.

India bowling: Zaheer 6-0-32-0; Harbhajan 48.3-23-59-5; Ishant 25-5-84-2; Mishra 40-12-78-3; Sehwag 10-2-20-0; Tendulkar 2-1-1-0.