The top order crumbles

Ashwell Prince's century put South Africa on top in the first innings.-AP   -  AP

The early departure of the Indian openers exposed the rest of the batsmen to the fury of Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel. But surely these batsmen had played enough Tests to comprehend the dynamics of building a Test innings, writes S. Dinakar.

Intensity and focus are essential attributes of a consistently winning team. India is not one yet.

The Indians fell apart on a dark final day at Kingsmead. The highly-rated batsmen had also failed a test of character.

India faced a possible 146 overs after Graeme Smith's declaration on day four. Then poor light, that lopped off large chunks of time on the fourth day's post-tea session and the first session on Saturday, offered India a glorious chance to go into the final Test of the Castle series with a 1-0 lead.

Chasing 354 was out of question. The visitors needed to play out time and had men with loads of experience who had been through similar situations before.

One sizable front-line partnership could have bailed the side out, notwithstanding the pace and fury of Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel. Sadly, the highest partnership of the innings was the eighth-wicket association of 59 between M. S. Dhoni and Zaheer Khan. The Indians let themselves down.

The side was bowled out for 179 in 55.1 overs. On the final day, the South Africans required just 42.1 overs to bundle the Indians out. This was meek surrender.

Skipper Rahul Dravid was not pleased. "If some tough decisions need to be made for the final Test, we will not shy away from it," he said.

The Indian top-order had once again come under scrutiny. Said coach Greg Chappell, "We need starts and we have not been getting them."

Dilip Vengsarkar, Chairman of the Indian selection panel, was incensed at Virender Sehwag's lack of application and Wasim Jaffer's poor stroke selection. "He (Sehwag) looks like he is going to get out in a matter of minutes. What is the use of settling in (about Jaffer) if you are not to contribute to the team's cause."

Ironically, the tailenders, Sreesanth, Zaheer and Kumble, displayed greater resolve than some of the frontline batsmen. "We cannot expect our bowlers to do it all the time for us," said Chappell.

The early departure of the openers exposed the rest of the batsmen to the fury of Ntini and Nel. But surely these men had played enough Tests to comprehend the dynamics of building a Test innings.

The modes of dismissals tell a story. Sachin Tendulkar was on top of the bowling in the first innings when he played an inexplicable dab shot with a slip cordon in place. Jaffer attempted an ambitious pull on the final day. Sourav Ganguly, bat away from the body, steered to gully when he needed to play straight. M.S. Dhoni, batting with courage on the last day, went for an ambitious cover drive moments before tea.

"He (Dhoni) needs to understand the situations better," said Dravid.

Dravid was at the receiving end of poor decisions in both the innings from umpire Asad Rauf. The umpire's faulty caught-behind decision against Dravid in the second innings might have had a significant bearing on the result of the match.

The Indian captain left the arena minutes before the players walked off the field, for the last time on day four, due to poor light. Then in the four overs of cricket after a 55-minute delayed start on the final day, India lost two more wickets, Tendulkar and Jaffer.

The sequence of events might have been different had Dravid still been there. A single wrong umpiring decision, at a critical stage of the game, can alter the flow of a match significantly.

And when S. Sreesanth, the last Indian wicket to fall, was adjudged caught behind in fading light, the ball had only brushed his shoulder.

There was also a feeling in the Indian camp that the umpires were not consistent in their interpretation of light. They had light meters, but were pointing it towards the floodlights than at the sightscreen, which is what the batsman would see as the bowler ran in to bowl to him.

This was a Test where the umpires made news, not always for the right reasons. Elite panel umpire Mark Benson had to be rushed to a nearby hospital on the third morning due to heart palpitation. He took no further part in the match and the third umpire, Ian Howell, a South African, stepped in for him.

The Indians might have been unlucky but they also played into the hands of South Africa. V. V. S. Laxman was resolute in the first innings, and received a mean off-cutter in the second (he was also outstanding in the slips), and Tendulkar essayed a flurry of cover-drives in the first innings, but there was not much on view that inspired confidence.

The host, under considerable criticism after the debacle in the first Test, displayed resilience and resolve. Creditably, South Africa's victory was achieved without its technically most accomplished cricketer, Jacques Kallis, who was down with a sore back.

South Africa carried out some crucial changes in its batting order. Herschelle Gibbs was pushed down the order to No. 4, and Abraham de Villiers opened with captain Smith.

Gibbs rattled up a valuable half-century in the first innings after the Indian pacemen had made early inroads. Then, Smith (the beleaguered skipper finally found some form) and De Villiers, in the first weighty opening partnership of the series, added 99 in the second innings.

Earlier, Ashwell Prince's fifth Test hundred could not have surfaced at a better time. South Africa appeared to have frittered away the advantage of winning the toss on a pitch that sported cracks and had less pace and bounce than on a normal Durban pitch.

The left-handed Prince played the percentages well, and rallied with the tail. He cut and punched firmly and ran superbly between the wickets. Prince has tightened up his game, and looks the part in the Test line-up. Looking back, Tendulkar dropping the batsman on 41 in the slips, was a costly lapse.

South Africa's first innings score of 328 was, eventually, more than what the host expected. The side, gaining a 88-run first innings lead, suffered an alarming slump on the fourth day, following another fine display of swing, pace and control by Sreesanth, but Shaun Pollock produced a half-century of languid strokes under pressure. When he pulled the speedy V. R. V. Singh past mid-on, it showed how quickly he was picking the length.

It is the bowlers who eventually win matches and South Africa's pace pack struck at frequent intervals. Ntini was clearly the leader.

He had largely disappointed at the Wanderers. But at Kingsmead he proved a livewire; a clear and present danger to the batsmen.

Ntini still releases from wide of the crease, but his ability, now, to consistently straighten the ball to the right-handers enables him to find the outside edge.

He is mixing his pace better. Crucially for South Africa, Ntini bowled a fuller length, mixing those deliveries cleverly with the short-pitched fliers. The Indians were never comfortable.

"Makhaya was searching for a few things within himself at the Wanderers. But the quality of a great cricketer is that he lifts his performances when his team needs him to. Makhaya does that all the time," said Smith.

Andre Nel was as sharp as Ntini and cut the ball both ways. Debutant Morne Morkel showed he has the right qualities; he displayed plenty of sense with the bat too. Hall surprised India on the final day with some well-directed short-pitched bowling. The South African catching in the cordon was sharp.

The Test would also be remembered for slow over rates, time wasting tactics, and verbal duels on the field of play. India, eventually, was not able to exorcise the ghosts of Kingsmead.