|Graeme Smith en route to his 94 in Cape Town on Thursday. (AFP)
Cape Town: With Team India taking a 41-run lead on a Newlands wicket which is crumbling, the stage is set for a dramatic finish to the three-Test Castle series. That South Africa must bat last is significant.
Two days remain.
However, irrespective of the result (there are takers for a draw, too), the most enduring image will probably be that of Sachin Tendulkar’s flying kiss to thank Munaf Patel, easily our worst fielder, for taking a tumbling catch off his bowling to dismiss Jacques Kallis.
The vice-captain’s exit, which made it 260 for four, may well turn out to be the defining moment if India win this Test and series. One of the many Capetonians in the XI, Kallis began with a 70-plus average at Newlands and could’ve taken South Africa to a position of strength.
His is among the biggest of wickets in the business.
Faced with India’s first innings 414, the South Africans finished on 373. At one stage, they’d been an awesome 173 for one. Graeme Smith got out at that score, for a superb 94, and Hashim Amla (63) followed four runs later.
Amla’s dismissal confirmed yet again that handsome partnerships actually end in twos.
While Smith and Amla added 159 for the second-wicket, there were useful partnerships down the order as well. Eightythree between Kallis and Ashwell Prince and, later, 69 between Mark Boucher and Shaun Pollock. Kallis and Boucher got fifties.
“Quite a few of us got fifties, but no one built on them... Winning from this situation won’t be hard for us, but having taken the lead, the Indians have their noses slightly ahead... Today, the wicket deteriorated more than expected... The ball is turning and, because of the dry conditions, there’s reverse swing” Smith remarked.
Rahul Dravid delayed taking the second new ball, but when he did, the last four wickets fell for under 50 runs.
The South African captain was an Anil Kumble victim and the leggie is now on a par with compatriot Kapil Dev, who had the distinction of removing the most batsmen in the Nineties — nine.
It’s no surprise that Kumble emerged the most successful (four for 117) in the first innings. He’s expected to make a bigger impact in the next.
Asked if he’d ever seen such a wicket at home, Smith quipped: “Never ever... Never ever... Hopefully, never again! As we go forward, the turning ball is the issue... The toughest part in these (subcontinental) conditions is to bat last...”
Hardly the perfect mindset to be in.
Incidentally, Smith’s parents — Graham and Janet — were at the ground. When The Telegraph asked what they felt about his classy innings, he replied: “Haven’t spoken to them as yet... They probably liked it...”
Dravid maintained his team had a good day. “I didn’t expect such a wicket... Have never seen one like it in South Africa, but if you have a good seam attack, you make the opposition play in conditions they don’t like...”
He concurred with Smith’s “noses ahead” line.
The Indian captain added: “The key for us is batting well in the first session tomorrow... It’s going to be a battle of attrition as runs haven’t been coming easy... The pace of the game picks up quickly in the last two days (in subcontinental conditions) and the ideal situation will be if South Africa cannot win and have to defend batting fourth.”
Dravid didn’t talk of “numbers (preferred score),” saying his team would “play it by the ear.”
He didn’t commit himself, but Ravi Shastri is of the opinion that Virender Sehwag should get back the opening position. “Dinesh Karthik did a fine job in the first innings... Now, it’s a different ball game... If Sehwag gets going, then... Of course, we must bat sensibly in the first two hours (on Friday) otherwise we could be digging a hole...”
Caution, then, has to be on top of the agenda when Day IV gets underway.
Footnote: Patel often bowled within himself and there’s speculation that his recovery from the ankle injury hasn’t been hundred per cent. Then, the in-form Sreesanth landed awkwardly and, towards the close, was far from the bowler he’d been till a while ago. It’s to be seen whether it impacts on India’s chances.