Random thoughts on day 4

#It was “a day of glorious uncertainties”, when “fortunes swung from side to side”. Wickets tumbled, recoveries were mounted, an all-time great cricketer put on a show, “and it was all happening at Newlands”. Harbhajan’s deliveries in the morning were like “spitting cobras”, until Kallis came out there and hit the ball “like a tracer bullet”. At the end of a day of “fluctuating fortunes”, “all three results were possible”, and “cricket was the real winner”.

There you go — a lifetime of Ravi Shastri commentary in one paragraph. And the fun part is, it’s all true.

#”After Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis is the best player in the world,” Harbhajan Singh was moved to say after close of play last evening. I don’t know about before/after — Kallis is great. Period. Statistics speak, eloquently, of his claim to rival the great Garfield Sobers, and to shade the likes of Imran Khan, Kapil Dev and Ian Botham in the roster of cricket’s great all-rounders — but no statistic attached to the man can speak as eloquently as the sight of the big man clutching his rib, doubling over in excruciating pain, then straightening, gritting his jaw against the fresh jolt, and then going low on his knee to reverse-sweep India’s hopes of a quick finish to the deep point boundary.

More than skills, it is courage that captures the imagination — and yesterday, Kallis embodied it in scarcely credible fashion. That he came out to bat at all, in his usual place, was an act of immense fortitude worthy of applause; that he stepped into the breach when his side was tottering, tamed the conditions, defied spin and swing and bounce and turn and the intense heat of Newlands to remain unconquered at the end — that was an act of immense majesty from one of the game’s most majestic performers, and at a larger level the most eloquent testimony to the passion this series has inspired in both sides.

Of all the memorable sights this series has provided, the one that will prove most indelible is this: Jacques Kallis walking off the field of play, unconquered, with one hand pressed to smother the excruciating pain in his side and the other holding his bat aloft in triumph. There’s no scriptwriter brave enough to write such scenes.

#That display, that moment contrasted, oddly, with the spectacle of Zaheer Khan ambling in and bowling at speeds varying from 112-116 after lunch, when South Africa were six down and there was a game waiting to be won. Possibly, the bowler’s already frail shoulder was acting up again as it has so often in recent times; likely, we will never really know what kind of torment he was under — but still, while watching that performance (and the way an out of form Mark Boucher settled in against those gentle offerings), you found yourself admiring Kallis all the more — and wishing for the spirit of Anil Kumble (the Kumble of the broken jaw, who bowled a fiercely competitive spell to Brian Lara; “try bowling with a toothache, see what happens to you each time you land that front foot, and then try and imagine what it took for Anil to bowl that spell,” one of his contemporaries told me during casual chat) to animate India’s lead bowler for a spell.

#Did we mention the passion that animates both sides in this series? Right — such a pity, really, that it is not shared to the same extent by the rival captains, both of whom appear too conscious of the risk of losing and not sufficiently aware of the glory of a win. Make no mistake, both Dhoni and Smith would like a win on their resume in this battle between the nominal numbers 1 and 2 of Test cricket — but their intent, first last and always, is to ensure against defeat.

That trait was in evidence when on the third day Smith, for all his pre-series bombast about flat track bullies, inexplicably spread the field out wide when Harbhajan joined Tendulkar at the crease and showed a sign of intent. That defensiveness contrasted inexplicably with the show his premier fast bowler had put on all day, in what more than one commentator is calling the spell from hell. (If you haven’t already, stop right here and read Aakash Chopra on Dale Steyn).

Today, it was Dhoni’s turn. South Africa started at 52/2; within 11 deliveries, Petersen was gone. In the next over, Amla was back in the hut. Harbhajan had finally found conditions that negated his hatred of the Kookkaburra — a wicket with bounce and turn, a perfect patch just outside the right hander’s off stump on length and an opposition that, judged by the way they were batting, were in panic mode. Kallis — did we mention his injured rib? — had to do something to break free; he opted for the reverse sweep as his weapon of choice, and hit it perfectly. Once.

A fielding captain at that point could have thought, right, so Kallis wants to try and reverse sweep (a shot where much of the pressure, the strain, is precisely on hip and injured chest) a spinner on top of his game bowling with a hard, relatively new ball, out of the rough, on a wicket with unpredictable turn and bounce — good luck to him. He could have moved a fielder into place for the top edge, and taken on the challenge. Dhoni, however, backed off — the fielder who had gone to retrieve the ball was stationed there permanently after just one shot. And with that, with the instinctive defensiveness which characterized the immediate spreading of the field, he and the team lost the iron grip they had taken on the game. And that in turn paved the way for the 200-odd runs the last four Proteas wickets accumulated, to take a commanding grip on the game.

In that, he outdid Smith — and his team could still pay a heavy price for that moment.

#Not surprised, Boucher said about the defensive fields. “I think in the back of a captain’s mind, you don’t want to give away many boundaries. If there’s stuff happening out there, you’d rather have catchers and in-and-out fields. Like I said, to protect the boundaries, and make the guys work the singles.”

Which team, looking for a way out of jail, needs a second invitation? Boucher “worked the singles” — 14 of them off Harbhajan alone, rotating strike effectively and ensuring that the offie could not bowl to a plan against any one batsman. And Kallis, broken rib and resulting difficulty in scampering across and all, took 61 — sixty one — singles, 30 of them off Harbhajan Singh.

While watching the incredibly subdued Indian performance in the second and third sessions, I found myself indulging in nostalgia for a time when captains knew how to handle spinners. All it took was the first sign of turn, of wear and tear, for men to crowd the bat in job lots, for the spinner to go into overdrive, for constant chatter to add to the pressure. Now, all it takes is one shot for captains — including the captain of an Indian side where a spinner is still the lead bowler — to dissipate that pressure.

While talking of spinners and modern captains, Bishen Singh Bedi once told me a story about the Nawab of Pataudi, who turns 70 today. Bedi spoke of how, on a tour by Australia, Ian Chappell was handling the Indian spinners with consummate ease. In one Test, Chappell had just come out to bat, and Bedi got the ball. Pat set the regulation field — point, cover, mid off. Bedi asked for cover to be moved to a widish extra cover, opening up a huge gap. He bowled, Chappell drove — through that gap, for four. Rinse, repeat two more times. Off the fourth ball, Chappell drove, missed as the ball spun past the bat, and was stumped. “I wanted him to play that shot; I fed it but each time, I pulled the length short by a fraction. The fourth ball, I held it back a bit more, Chappell was drawn forward and beaten. Today? After that first four, the captain would have sent a man out to the ‘sweeper’ position.” Bang on. Somewhere along the way, the art of leading a spin attack has been lost, perhaps irrevocably (or maybe not — to repeat something I’ve been banging on about on Twitter, I liked whatever I saw of Gautam Gambhir’s handling of spinners. True, in a different format — but in ODIs, a captain is in fact justified in setting in-out fields, but Gambhir’s every instinct seems to be to attack, and he has the knack of placing the men in the right positions. Maybe he could be our ‘spinning skipper’? Maybe we could fuse Dhoni’s luck with Gambhir’s nous and create some kind of ‘super skipper’?).

I wrote this way back in 2002. I could have written it yesterday — same bowler, same problem.

#Sachin Tendulkar’s knock in the first innings has been celebrated enough, including on this forum, to merit reiteration. Yet, one aspect of that knock merits mention as the clock ticks down to start of play on the last day of the most fascinating Test series in recent memory: humility. Indian batsmen have routinely been beaten by inimical conditions and superlative bowling on this tour thus far. Most — including Sachin on a couple of earlier occasions — have tried to defy the odds, the conditions, and the bowling, and have perished trying (think for instance of Dravid’s uncharacteristic drive well away from body in the second Test).

What marked Sachin out in his epic knock is humility — the acceptance of the fact that for all his skill, his years of experience, his vast storehouse of cricketing knowledge and a muscle memory honed to its finest pitch, the wicket, the conditions and most especially, the bowler was on that day his master. He accepted that knowledge, internalized it, lived with it, and concentrated on manufacturing an epic one ball at a time, allowing himself to be only as good as the bowling and the conditions permitted.

He was repeatedly beaten. On that day, anyone would have been. He survived. On that day, none but he could have survived that spell.

For Sewhag, today, I wish some of that humility. Sehwag can’t bat like Sachin — we wouldn’t want him to try, just as we don’t need Sachin batting like Sewhag. But Sehwag could, for one day, learn that lesson that it is okay, sometimes, to temper his natural aggression. Not defend, no — there is no real defense against Steyn, if he reprises his spell from hell. But Viru could learn, from Sachin’s masterclass, to pick the ball and the bowler to go after (remember how, when Tsotsobe took over from Steyn, Sachin realized the danger of letting the bowler hit his straps, and treated him to a savage short arm pull and an upper cut for consecutive fours?).

If he does that, it will set up this game like nothing else can. The choices for India are clear: try for a win on the back of a Sehwag special, or buckle down to bat out time. And there’s a bonus: Smith showed, by batting through the day yesterday, that South Africa’s first goal is to not lose this series. If Sehwag settles down, lasts through that opening spell, Smith will go on the defensive — and in that, lies India’s best chance to make history.