| Sourav Ganguly pulls one at the Eden on Tuesday. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
Calcutta: Makhaya Ntini proved to be the party-pooper on Tuesday. Shaun Pollock had just been mercilessly lifted for a six in the earlier over as Virender Sehwag set himself up for the carnage. The serpentine queues outside Eden Gardens lent credence to the excitement.
A well-directed bouncer from Ntini cramped Sehwag miserably as he tried to defend. The ball ballooned in the gully-point region as Graeme Smith judged it well to the delirious celebration of his teammates.
Sehwag trudged back amid brooding silence carrying with him the shattered hopes of a million. The offensive launched to unsettle the South Africans' tactical ploy of slowing down the scoring rate and pressurise the batsmen into submission suddenly seemed to be in the fore.
It has now become a norm for Sehwag to set the trend for the Indians. His performance determines the course of the innings.
Till last evening all the talk of 'negative' cricket revolved around South Africa. On Tuesday, the Indians' defensive batting prompted Ray Jennings to say that the Indians, too, 'were playing for a draw'.
The South African coach obviously was counting on his gains while ignoring the hard facts that crippled India on the third day ' the early departure of Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar's struggle with bat, an unfortunate decision that curtailed Sourav Ganguly's progress, a soft ball that made runs hard to come by and Rahul Dravid's inability to dominate the bowling.
The Indians are already ahead by 54 runs and even a 100-run lead on this wicket is bound to put the visitors under pressure. Justin Ontong's performance can be no yardstick to judge the wicket, but he, too, has made the odd ball turn. Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh will prove to be a handful in the circumstances.
The delay in taking the new ball worked to the visitors' advantage. Besides the slow run making, the old ball also aided reverse swing. Zander de Bruyn benefited the most, but Shaun Pollock and Ntini were also promising. The South African bowlers were also trying to extract advantage from the uneven bounce at the pavilion end.
Sachin's 83-minute stay at the wicket was never encouraging. He hasn't been in the best of touch after the tennis elbow injury and wasn't convincing today either. Being bowled off the inside edge, to a De Bruyn delivery, has happened to him in the recent past. His late reaction will be held responsible for the downfall.
Dravid, who has equalled Sachin's record of playing 84 Tests on the trot since debut, also fell in similar fashion for 80. The vice-captain looked in control, though, his inability to push the scoring rate often made the crowd restless. In the face of tidy bowling, it made sense to play according to the situation. Still, a few blows could have upset Smith's plans, but Dravid decided not to take risks. It was a test of patience and Andrew Hall finally triumphed over Dravid.
Sourav could consider himself to be unlucky. Having survived on 30, he fell to a De Bruyn delivery that, as TV replays suggested, pitched outside the line of the leg stump. The ICC's Umpire of the Year Simon Taufel's decision was astonishing. It only proves that mistakes can happen even to the best and the call for more technology for on-field umpires cannot just be blown off.
V.V.S. Laxman never looked like being able to carry the responsibility of lifting the team out of the woods. His tentative approach, despite a few wristy hits, never gave the assurance his presence carries. Ntini had the final laugh after being hammered for a couple of boundaries in his previous over.
If Sachin and Laxman were disappointing, Dinesh Karthik and Irfan Pathan's convincing batting came like a whiff of fresh air. They have already stitched together 51 runs for the seventh wicket and look set for a few more.
The wicketkeeper grew in confidence as he spent time at the wicket. Pathan's gradual progress into an allrounder has come through well and the more time spent batting at nets is starting to show in his confidence.
If South Africa start with the new ball on Wednesday, it will be interesting to note how they respond.