Statistically speaking, Dale Steyn has dismissed Viru Sehwag more often than any other bowler in the business. He has done that by implementing to perfection a simple plan — prey on the Indian opener’s impetuosity by keeping the ball outside off, to varying degrees, and challenging Sehwag to go after him. Steyn can now legitimately claim the Indian opener as his bunny. Or can he? The best comment on Sehwag I’ve seen in a long time came from my friend Siddarth Vaidyanathan (@sidvee on Twitter — are you following him yet?):
With Sehwag falling to his own headlong momentum and Rahul Dravid, in his 150th Test, continuing his nightmare run (cricketers say it is almost axiomatic that when you are going through a bad patch, everything that could possibly go wrong, will — Dravid on this tour is proving to be the perfect example), there was the distinct possibility that India would fall to its own demons. What saved the side its collective blushes was some gritty batting by Gambhir and Tendulkar, some fairly ordinary catching by the Proteas, and a moment of generosity from the umpires who decided to give Tendulkar ‘benefit of doubt’ against Harris.
While on that last, I wonder how long it will take the South African media to speculate on whether the umpire was drunk the night before — as it did famously after the Durban Test. That was easily the WTF moment of last year — a defeat on the back of a spectacular first innings collapse (during which the umpires, please note, were not drunk — SA’s intoxication with its own success was solely responsible for the pathetic 131 it put up), and media reports immediately following that the umpire in question was seen inebriated the night before the Test began. Rather strange case to make, that intoxication led to bad decisions five days later — surely the longest lasting hangover in history. What made it funnier still, in a WTF kind of way, was the build up — players were supposed to have seen the drunk umpire, the manager was supposed to be filing a complaint, and then after all the hoo-haa, turned out no complaint was ever filed.
In any case, if the team manager had heard of this incident before the Test started, surely it was the act of a responsible official to bring it to the ICC’s notice at once, and not after the result of the game was known?
Back to the cricket. The pitch has been easing out steadily since around the third session of day one (which makes Sreesanth’s early morning heroics of day two all the more commendable); if the weather holds, day three should be the best batting day of this Newlands encounter. Against that, Steyn and Morkel showed the advantage of an extra yard or ten of pace on a benign wicket, repeatedly hustling Gambhir in particular with bounce at pace. On this track, that is just about the only tactic South Africa has at its disposal, so today’s play should see more of the same.
The real danger, though, comes from Tsotsobe, the “holding” seamer who has been the recipient of Indian generosity in previous matches. The batsmen seem so focussed on negating Steyn, and Morkel to an extent, that they tend to relax against the third seamer — who on the day saw two good edges go to waste (when Prince failed to go for a catch off a Tendulkar edge, and when de Villiers of all people dropped Gambhir towards close of play).
The other possible problem — and this is a peculiarly Tendulkar problem — comes from Paul Harris. Sachin has in this knock shown a tendency to pre-judge how he will play the spinner — a big stride forward, bat religiously in front of pad, angled to work the ball to leg through the close cordon. The risk is that he will miss, and be LBW — and but for the umpire’s largesse, that is how he should have perished late yesterday evening.
At the end of day two, the game is deadlocked — and on balance, India is better placed to prise it open. South Africa has a problem — it will have to bowl this morning with a ball already 50 overs old, on a pitch becoming increasingly good for batting. Its best chance is to let Steyn and Morkel bowl flat out — but there is a limit to how many overs the two quicks can bowl at a time. Smith has to conserve their energies by using Tsotsobe and Harris for extended periods (and he has no Kallis to fall back on). All things considered, advantage marginally India: lose wickets early and the tourists are back on the back foot; ride out the early spurt from the Proteas quicks, and Sachin, Gambhir, Laxman, Pujara and Dhoni can look to milk the two lesser bowlers, with a view to taking the lead well before play ends today.
Sorely tempted to borrow from Ravi Shastri’s playbook and say “Today is going to be critical” — but then, I don’t recall any Test where every day wasn’t critical (unless India is playing Sri Lanka on a featherbed), do you?