Durban conquered

For the fourth time this year, V. V. S. Laxman contributed in the second innings when his side desperately needed him. Although he missed his first hundred in South Africa by four runs in Kingsmead, it was an innings that helped India register only its second Test victory on South African soil. S. Ram Mahesh reports.

India had dismal memories of Durban coming into the second Test, memories that would have been exhumed after the terrible defeat it suffered in the first Test in Centurion. The world's best Test team had looked anything but that; it faced the challenge of raising its game at a venue that hasn't witnessed its best in the past.

The two concerns from the first Test were the batting in bowler-friendly conditions and the bowling when the help from the surface had ceased. When M. S. Dhoni saw the Kingsmead wicket, he knew his side was in for a low-scoring contest. It was firm and grassy. The forecast for overcast weather meant the swing-bowlers would be in play.

But in many ways, the second Test was the sort of game India has made a habit of winning. Not only had India lost the previous Test (India has a terrific record of bouncing back from defeat in the opening Test), the conditions were such that its bowlers gained in penetration. If only Dhoni could win the toss. He didn't, and India was put in.

India made 205 in its first-innings, V. V. S. Laxman's 38, the top-score. Nearly every batsman got a start; none went on. It was a trend that would repeat through the Test. South Africa might have dismissed India for fewer had Dale Steyn had better support. Morne Morkel, who was so good in the first Test, couldn't find his best. As a result, Steyn had to do most of the work alone, which he did, claiming six wickets in a display of skilful fast-bowling. Morkel did redeem himself on the second day, bowling better.

South Africa's batsmen let the side down, however, wilting in the face of some clever bowling from Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh, and some excellent catching. India also had a generous measure of fortune. Alviro Petersen and Jacques Kallis were unfortunate, the former bowled off his thigh pad and the latter run out when Ishant Sharma in his follow-through touched a Hashim Amla straight drive onto the stumps. Zaheer's return to the Indian side made a huge difference to the bowling. Harbhajan's dismissal of the in-form Amla was a significant moment in the match. South Africa was bundled out for 131.

India very nearly gave it away, losing four wickets before stumps on the second day — in all, 18 wickets fell on this bizarre day in conditions that traditionally in Durban have seen the batsmen hold sway. While there was some excellent bowling, many of the batsmen collaborated in their dismissals. The wicket played a part as well, for although it gave good value for stroke-play, every now and again, a ball would do a little more than expected off the surface. It was difficult to feel ‘in'.

Laxman's 96 was vital in India setting South Africa a target of 303 for victory. The batting artiste raised 70 for the eighth wicket with Zaheer Khan in a game-altering partnership. For the fourth time this year, Laxman contributed in the second innings when his side desperately needed him. In Colombo and in Mohali, he delivered victories when chasing. In Ahmedabad, he made the match safe against New Zealand.

Although he missed his first hundred in South Africa by four runs in Kingsmead, it was an innings that helped India register only its second Test victory on South African soil. Deservedly, he won the Man of the Match award, and rich praise from both his mates and his opponents.

Sreesanth was the unlikely bowling star in South Africa's chase, unlikely not because he doesn't have the talent — he certainly does — but unlikely because he had bowled poorly for a large part in South Africa's first innings. He got Graeme Smith, Amla and Kallis, three big wickets, to clear the way for his bowling colleagues. Smith and Amla didn't fall because they were bettered by unplayable deliveries — each made an error of judgment.

Kallis, however, could do little against the snorter he received. As he had done during A. B. de Villiers' wicket in the first innings, Sreesanth showed again that he can produce wicket-taking deliveries from nowhere.

Speaking after the win, Dhoni credited Laxman's innings and his bowlers' efforts. Smith said his side had lost the game on the second day when it conceded a lead of 74. Both looked forward to the decider, for India had levelled the three-match series with the 87-run win. The victory also ensured Dhoni's men finished 2010 without losing a series. Durban had been conquered at last.

THE SCORES

Second Test, Durban, December 26-29, 2010. India won by 87 runs.

India — 1st innings: V. Sehwag c Kallis b Steyn 25; M. Vijay c Boucher b Steyn 19; R. Dravid c Boucher b Steyn 25; S. Tendulkar c Kallis b Tsotsobe 13; V. V. S. Laxman c Tsotsobe b Steyn 38; C. Pujara c Boucher b Tsotsobe 19; M. Dhoni c Petersen b Steyn 35; Harbhajan Singh c de Villiers b Steyn 21; Zaheer Khan c Boucher b Morkel 0; Ishant Sharma (not out) 1; S. Sreesanth c Boucher b Morkel 0; Extras (b-1, lb-2, w-4, nb-2) 9. Total: 205.

Fall of wickets: 1-43, 2-48, 3-79, 4-117, 5-130, 6-156, 7-190, 8-193, 9-205.

South Africa bowling: Steyn 19-6-50-6; Morkel 19.1-3-68-2; Tsotsobe 11-3-40-2; Kallis 8-2-18-0; Harris 8-1-26-0.

South Africa — 1st innings: A. Petersen b Zaheer 24; G. Smith c Dhoni b Zaheer 9; H. Amla lbw b Harbhajan 33; J. Kallis (run out) 10; A. B. de Villiers c Dhoni b Sreesanth 0; A. Prince b Zaheer 13; M. Boucher (not out) 16; D. Steyn c Dravid b Harbhajan 1; P. Harris c Pujara b Harbhajan 0; M. Morkel c Harbhajan b Ishant 10; L. Tsotsobe c Vijay b Harbhajan 0; Extras (lb-2, w-1, nb-12) 15. Total: 131.

Fall of wickets: 1-23, 2-46, 3-67, 4-74, 5-96, 6-100, 7-103, 8-103, 9-127.

India bowling: Zaheer 13-2-36-3; Sreesanth 8-0-41-1; Ishant 9-2-42-1; Harbhajan 7.2-2-10-4.

India — 2nd innings: V. Sehwag c Boucher b Tsotsobe 32; M. Vijay c Amla b Morkel 9; R. Dravid c Boucher b Tsotsobe 2; S. Tendulkar c de Villiers b Steyn 6; V. V. S. Laxman c Boucher b Steyn 96; C. Pujara b Morkel 10; M. Dhoni c Boucher b Tsotsobe 21; Harbhajan Singh c Kallis b Morkel 4; Zaheer Khan c de Villiers b Harris 27; Ishant Sharma c Amla b Kallis 0; S. Sreesanth (not out) 0; Extras (b-8, lb-4, w-9) 21; Total: 228.

Fall of wickets: 1-42, 2-44, 3-48, 4-56, 5-93, 6-141, 7-148, 8-218, 9-223.

South Africa bowling: Steyn 15.5-1-60-2; Morkel 15-1-47-3; Tsotsobe 13-3-43-3; Kallis 13-2-30-1; Harris 14-2-36-1.

South Africa — 2nd innings: G. Smith c Dhoni b Sreesanth 37; A. Petersen c Pujara b Harbhajan 26; H. Amla c Dhoni b Sreesanth 16; J. Kallis c Sehwag b Sreesanth 17; A. B. de Villiers lbw b Harbhajan 33; A. Prince (not out) 39; M. Boucher lbw b Zaheer 1; D. Steyn c Pujara b Zaheer 10; P. Harris b Zaheer 7; M. Morkel c Dhoni b Ishant 20; L. Tsotsobe (run out) 0; Extras (lb-1, nb-8) 9. Total: 215.

Fall of wickets: 1-63, 2-82, 3-82, 4-123, 5-136, 6-143, 7-155, 8-182, 9-215.

India bowling: Zaheer 17-3-57-3; Ishant 11.3-0-36-1; Sreesanth 14-2-45-3; Harbhajan Singh 29-5-70-2; Tendulkar 1-0-6-0.