Test two, day one

When constructing narratives, you tend to look for plot points. For those moments that mean little at the time, but which you recognize, post facto, as the fulcrum around which the storyline turns on its axis.

The first came with less than half an hour to go for lunch. Hashim Amla, who by then had been batting long enough against India on this tour for his beard to have grown an inch or two more, and debutant Alviro Petersen, who from the first ball he addressed batted with the aplomb of a veteran, had weathered the inevitable early dismissal of Graeme Smith, bowled through the gate by Zaheer Khan [while on which, few bowlers have had the wood on opposing batsmen so thoroughly in recent times].

Harbhajan Singh came on to bowl after we had already seen enough from Amit  Mishra to realize he was not going to be the one to slice through the opposition on this day. And the off spinner started with just a slip and short square – but no bat-pad on the off, and no leg slip for the bounce and turn across the body that Bajji normally revels in at the Gardens.

It was a strangely non-aggressive field, especially when you consider that this was an off-spinner who owns this ground, bowling to a Test debutant who had never faced him before.

At that point, South Africa controlled the game. The Proteas have in recent times been slammed, with some justice, for a safety-first mindset with the bat. In Indian conditions, and with the advantage of winning the toss, that mindset became an asset – unlike the Aussies, for instance, who look to dominate and come to grief on grounds where patience is the key, the South Africans are adept at playing the waiting game. With Amla and Petersen growing in stature by the over, it was set up for the visitors to bat long and bat big, and to take the game away from the home side.

For 63 overs either side of the lunch break, nothing happened to change that impression, though Zaheer did take out Amla and Petersen after their respective centuries.

In the 64th over, Harbhajan bowled one on off and middle turning to leg; AB de Villiers stayed back and with the turn, tucked the single behind square. Nothing unusual there – Harbhajan had been bowling that line ever since this series started, and batsmen had been taking the singles, and more, being offered to them on a platter.

Except that this time, as the batsmen ambled across, Bajji wandered off to the side of the pitch and visibly berated himself. The words were unclear; the message was unmistakable – Bajji seemed to be reminding himself to bowl outside off, as his craft dictates; to make the batsman play beside the line and not behind it.

At the end of the over, Bajji was going 15-0-53-0; his series analysis was 61-1-219-2. From that point of self-realization on, he was to bowl a dream spell of 8-2-7-3.

The outside off line, and the bounce he got on this track, first defeated a Jacques Kallis sweep – part of an effort by the batsman to dominate the spinner, but on this occasion flawed because the bowler had kept the line wider of off; the turn in to the bat and the bounce off the deck found the top edge and VVS Laxman, making amends for a horrid drop off Amla when the batsman was in the sixties, provided that moment of magic every team needs, when he ran back from slip to take a tumbling catch as the ball came down over his shoulder.

Bajji’s form – or lack thereof – and his focus on bowling flat, defensive lines has in recent times triggered justified queries about his continuance as the team’s number one spinner. Every once in a while, though, sometimes sparks in that brain of his – and then he becomes unplayable.

Maybe it is a combination of the Eden Gardens and the number 250 – it was around that point that in his break out series against Australia he began turning it around with a hat-trick, before the Laxman-Dravid combine scripted one of the most stirring second acts in contemporary memory. Here, again, it was with South Africa still in control at 253/4 that magic happened.

Ashwell Prince came out; Bajji immediately went around the wicket to the left-hander. The batsman read that as an indication of the bowler’s ploy to hit off and turn it away from the bat, with a slip in place. He played for turn; Bajji bowled the one that went through with the arm, and nailed Prince bang in front.

Jean Paul Duminiy must have been too busy putting on his gear to watch Prince get out – he came out, got the exact same delivery, and departed in the exact same fashion, to put Bajji on the verge of another hat trick. Even before the umpire’s finger went up, the offie took off, not towards his celebrating team mates but towards the spectators thronging the one gallery that is not down for renovation.

There is nothing quite like the Eden Gardens when India is on top. Reports put the attendance at around the 40k mark, but the buzz around the ground was reminiscent of the Gardens in all its 95k glory – and Bajji, and the Indian team, fed off it.

It often happens with this team that when one player sparks, the rest catch fire. Zaheer Khan took out de Villiers with a great run from mid off to cover and a pick up and throw that caught the batsman out of the crease after Dale Steyn, who had survived Bajji’s hat trick ball, sent him back.

Ishant Sharma, who outside of a spell after lunch with some great short-pitched bowling particularly at Hashim Amla [a rare recent good spell, only for the good work to be undone when Ishant overdid the short stuff] and Amit Mishra then came to the party, and when umpires called a premature halt to play, the Proteas had lost eight first innings wickets for 45 runs and squandered the advantage of the toss. India, for its part, had scripted one of the most compelling turnarounds in recent memory.

Now it is India’s turn to make all the running. 280, tops, seems the most the Proteas can hope for from where they are; conditions are good for batting [though Steyn’s pre-series comment that when you are bowling at 150-plus, the nature of the pitch really doesn’t matter still holds good], and the home team can afford to take the better part of two days to build the sort of score Bajji, with this confidence going for him, can work with.

India has one other advantage going for it – the X factor that is the Eden Gardens itself. That is what I’ll be looking forward to tomorrow – the peculiar buzz that this ground more than any other in the country can create when the home side is doing well.

It is also what I will miss most about tomorrow’s play – the 50,000 spectators who will not be able to stream into the ground, and put the wind behind the home team’s sails.

PS: For those complaining [both in mail and comments] about my being non-responsive: I watched this day’s play partly from my new, and as yet incomplete, home; partly from the Yahoo guest house in Bangalore; partly from an airport lounge. And now I’m writing this, at 1 am, from a hotel room in Bombay where I am overnighting, before an early morning flight to Chandigarh. Sorry, time is a bit of a luxury just now. Back tomorrow night with a take on the day’s play — and back to regular blogging after I return to home base in Bangalore Wednesday. Be well.

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