Work-wise, this was a packed weekend — which worked in my favor. The sessions and periods of play that I watched in the first two days of the first RSA-India Test sufficed — total immersion would have been akin to being strapped to a chair and being forced to watch paint dry.
The cricket was, in a word, boring — for all the hype about AB de Villiers taking on the spinners, fact is none of the South African batsmen, batting on day two from a position of considerable comfort, were proactive; they never seemed inclined to try and step up the pressure. An overall run rate of 3.17 tells its own story; when that run rate is achieved on the back of a first day that produced 291/2, it becomes a bedtime story for the habitual insomniac.
If South Africa played to its patented safety first template and showed no real urgency in run-making [Kallis, his mind fettered by the desire for that elusive double ton, was as strokeless on day two as he was positive on day one], the Indians were equally disappointing. The wicket had bounce and sharp turn [we could yet come to regret not having taken the courageous step of going in with five bowlers, and including Pragyan Ojha in the mix] — the kind of conditions spinners revel in and batsmen, especially from teams like SA that are not known for their skill at playing the turning ball, dread. And yet the lines were flat, the bowling uninspired. Amit Mishra inspired oohs and aahs with sharp turn — but a foot of turn is of debatable value when the bowler is hitting the line outside off as his stock ball.
As for Bajji, any time you find an off spinner bowling the bulk of his deliveries from around the wicket to right handed batsmen, you’ve got to figure something is way wrong. The likes of EAS Prasanna, newly picked as one of India’s two spin bowling coaches, will tell you that when there is turn to be had, the off spinner’s stock ball is the one just short of driving length outside off, turning in to hit the top of off. That line forces the batsman to play the turning, bouncing ball from beside it, without the protection of his body behind the bat; Bajji’s preference on the other hand seemed to be to bowl off, to off&middle and middle stump lines — just right for batsmen to get behind it, watch the turn and play it down and away through the “leg trap” for easy runs.
Add missed chances and an umpire seemingly unschooled in the fact that the LBW is a legitimate mode of dismissal, and it all made for less than compelling viewing. More of the same, I suspect, today, though as I write this Sehwag has already hit Dale Steyn for the first four of the day — India with a batting lineup missing the solidity of Dravid and the silken grace of Laxman has to make 359 as its first target, to get past the follow on mark, and then fight its way to 558 and beyond. Coach Gary Kirsten spoke of how there is yet a chance for the home side — but realistically speaking, there are only two results possible: a draw, and a South Africa win. And the way the game is set up, by the end of play today we will have a fair idea which of those two results we are likely to get [oh, and between that four and this sentence, Gambhir’s been taken out by Morkel].
Add post: The first hour is not yet done, and already SA has a firm grip on the game. Gambhir, Vijay and Tendulkar back in the hut — and all three batsmen undone by the extra pace of the Morne-Steyn combine. Pace through the air — the quality the Indian seam bowlers lack — is proving to be the key differentiator. Two quicks regularly hitting speeds in excess of 145k, coming at them from either end, appear more than the Indian batsmen have the will, or skill, to handle. Gambhir got the kind of ball no batsman wants as the first delivery of a session; Vijay misjudged the line and extent of movement; Tendulkar made a mess of trying to counter away swing generated at great pace — and India, 60/3 at the time of writing this, are now dependent on Sehwag, two debutants [one of them a reserve wicket keeper] and captain MS Dhoni to save their blushes.
Open thread, people, for any comments that may occur to you in course of the day’s play. Will check back off and on…