Little to choose between the two sides

For India it was a missed opportunity to win its first series in South Africa, but it emerged with both its reputation and its No. 1 ranking intact. S. Ram Mahesh reports.

Newlands is among the most beautiful cricket grounds in the world, situated as it is at the foot of Table Mountain. It's difficult not to feel inspired at ground level — when you look around you see gracefully built stands back-dropped by the massive grey-blackness of the mountain; when the sun bounces off its rocky face, all seems well with the world. It makes sighting the ball just a touch difficult, especially when staring into the light, but a dropped catch is a small price to pay for the feeling of grandeur this ground evokes.

It is to this moving venue that India and South Africa travelled for the deciding Test with the series tied 1-1. Contrary to the groundsman's expectations, the playing surface wasn't flat and slow — not on the first three days at least.

Overcast weather on the first day and a slightly damp wicket prompted M. S. Dhoni to bowl after winning a rare toss. On a start-stop day, India did well with the ball, and will have done better had it not been for Jacques Kallis. The great South African batsman turned on a masterful display of batting against the moving ball to resist India's quest for wickets. Hashim Amla's aggression rattled India as well, but it was Kallis who inexorably swung the contest, continuing on the second day to make 161, his 39th Test hundred. Sreesanth took five wickets for India, using the conditions to produce genuine wicket-taking deliveries.

India lost two early wickets in its response to South Africa's 363, but Gautam Gambhir and Sachin Tendulkar raised 176 for the third wicket to defy South Africa. They did particularly well, for Dale Steyn, on the third day, bowled at a level rarely seen. If Steyn had been luckier, India wouldn't have stood a chance, so many times did he beat the batsman, swinging the ball from leg to off. Gambhir missed a century, but Tendulkar brought up his 51st, the master's 146 helping India edge ahead by two runs. Tendulkar was well supported by India's lower-order in this endeavour.

India had South Africa on the mat in the second innings. Harbhajan Singh, who finished with a seven-wicket haul, was instrumental in reducing the home side to 130 for six. But Kallis played another innings of singular brilliance, using the reverse-sweep to disrupt Harbhajan and then settling to cleverly pick his runs. His defensive technique against spin — the ball misbehaved off the rough — was just as secure as it was against seam and swing.

His ability to create his own leg-stump line by moving to off-stump allowed him to turn the strike over, but it was his clever and subversive use of the reverse-sweep that forced Harbhajan to acknowledge that Kallis was the best after Tendulkar. Kallis continued his exceptional record in Cape Town, his home, with his seventh and eighth hundreds at Newlands, where he learnt his cricket. His twin centuries must rank as one of the finest individual achievements in all Test cricket, for during the course of his innings he mastered every conceivable test a batsman can face: seam, swing, batting with the tail, turn and bounce, batting through injury. He accomplished all this despite the pressure of a series decider, underlining again his greatness as a batsman.

India missed a trick by being too defensive in the field, and South Africa returned the favour by waiting to be bowled out and not making a proactive declaration. Clearly, both sides had too much to lose; in the bargain, the chance to win was surrendered. Still, India needed to bat well on the fifth day. Gambhir stepped up to the challenge, batting through injury, to make the match safe for India. Rahul Dravid turned in a vital contribution, eating into two and a half hours of the playing time on the final day. But Tendulkar and V.V.S. Laxman still had a fair bit to do in anxious circumstances. Tendulkar shut shop, not looking to score while Laxman batted more freely. Together they saw their side to safety, ensuring that India drew its first series in South Africa.

The 1-1 result was a fair indication of how the teams matched up: there was little to choose between the two although each side had players of different skills. For India it was a missed opportunity to win its first series in South Africa, but it emerged with both its reputation and its No. 1 ranking intact.

The Scores

Third Test, Cape Town, January 2-6, 2011. Match drawn.

South Africa — 1st innings: A. Petersen c Dhoni b Ishant 21; G. Smith lbw b Zaheer 6; H. Amla c Pujara b Sreesanth 59; J. Kallis c Dhoni b Zaheer 161; A. B. de Villiers c Dhoni b Sreesanth 26; A. Prince b Sreesanth 47; M. Boucher c Dhoni b Sreesanth 0; D. Steyn c Pujara b Zaheer 0; M. Morkel c Dhoni b Sreesanth 8; P. Harris c Pujara b Ishant 7; L. Tsotsobe (not out) 8; Extras (b-1, lb-6, w-1, nb-11) 19. Total: 362.

Fall of wickets: 1-17, 2-34, 3-106, 4-164, 5-262, 6-262, 7-272, 8-283, 9-310.

India bowling: Zaheer 29.5-6-89-3; Sreesanth 29-0-114-5; Ishant 27-6-77-2; Harbhajan 27-3-75-0.

India — 1st innings: G. Gambhir c Boucher b Harris 93; V. Sehwag c Smith b Steyn 13; R. Dravid (run out) 5; S. Tendulkar b Morkel 146; V. V. S. Laxman (run out) 15; C. Pujara lbw b Steyn 2; M. Dhoni c Prince b Steyn 0; Harbhajan Singh c sub b Steyn 40; Zaheer Khan c Prince b Morkel 23; Ishant Sharma c Boucher b Steyn 1; S. Sreesanth (not out) 4; Extras (lb-20, w-1, nb-1) 22. Total: 364.

Fall of wickets: 1-19, 2-28, 3-204, 4-235, 5-237, 6-247, 7-323, 8-341, 9-350.

South Africa bowling: Steyn 31-11-75-5; M. Morkel 29.1-7-106-2; Tsotsobe 26-5-82-0; Harris 29-8-72-1; Petersen 2-0-9-0.

South Africa — 2nd innings: G. Smith lbw b Harbhajan 29; A. Petersen lbw b Harbhajan 22; P. Harris lbw b Harbhajan 0; H. Amla b Harbhajan 2; J. Kallis (not out) 109; A. B. de Villiers b Zaheer 13; A. Prince c Sreesanth b Ishant 22; M. Boucher lbw b Tendulkar 55; D. Steyn c sub b Harbhajan 32; M. Morkel c Sreesanth b Harbhajan 28; L. Tsotsobe c Sehwag b Harbhajan 8; Extras (lb-7, w-2, nb-12) 21. Total: 341.

Fall of wickets: 1-50, 2-52, 3-53, 4-64, 5-98, 6-130, 7-233, 8-287, 9-333.

India bowling: Zaheer 20-2-64-1; Sreesanth 24-3-79-0; Ishant 18-1-62-1; Harbhajan 38-1-120-7; Tendulkar 2-0-9-1.

India — 2nd innings: G. Gambhir c Boucher b Steyn 64; V. Sehwag c Smith b Morkel 11; R. Dravid c Prince b Tsotsobe 31; S. Tendulkar (not out) 14; V. V. S. Laxman (not out) 32; Extras (b-7, w-5, nb-2) 14. Total (for three wkts.) 166.

Fall of wickets: 1-27, 2-106, 3-120.

South Africa bowling: Steyn 18-6-43-1; Morkel 15-6-26-1; Tsotsobe 13-4-29-1; Harris 30-19-29-0; Smith 4-0-27-0; Petersen 2-0-5-0.