Two innings of vastly differing aesthetics helped India respond with dignity to South Africa's 265 on an undercooked pitch that steadily grew worse to bat on. Sourav Ganguly, defying angles and defeating bowlers, and V.V.S. Laxman, twirling his wrists like he was toying with club bowlers at a beer match, put in performances as India managed a slender lead of 23 with one wicket in hand.
Need for planning
It became clear early on that each batsman would need his own plan on what he hoped to achieve on this pitch and the means he would use to get there. No one formula would work universally and each bowler posed a different kind of threat. India's openers are both boundary hitters, so it came as no surprise that both chose to attack the new ball. But on the day neither came off. Sehwag, pushed back by a series of short-pitch deliveries, failed to come forward to a fullish ball that came back and was trapped in front by Dale Steyn. Jaffer fell over a touch trying to turn Morne Morkel to the on side and became the second lbw victim of the day.
Replying in kind
On Thursday, it was the 91-run second-wicket partnership between Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla that made the difference between a good score and a par score. Rahul Dravid and Laxman could manage only 78, but given that they came together with the score on 35 for 2 it was of utmost importance that they stayed and settled the nerves.
Laxman took a moment to get his eye in, but for what came after you would have granted him an hour of watchfulness. On a pitch where every batsman has struggled, Laxman played punchy shots on the rise through the off side with immaculate control. His placement negated the need to keep the ball along the ground and his ability to play late meant he had that extra millisecond to adjust his stroke if the ball bounced more or less. Dravid was incredibly circumspect but he knows enough about batting with Laxman and protecting partnerships to decide just how to play.
But nothing could prepare Dravid for the unplayable brute from Morne Morkel that reared from a length and slammed into his gloves, ballooning up for AB de Villiers to catch. Only 10 runs later Morkel produced a beauty that shaped to come in but left Laxman (50) late to peg back the off stump.
The second coming
While Laxman and Dravid had set the base, there was still plenty of work to be done when the second of the two was dismissed, at 123 for 4, with India still trailing by 142 runs.
Ganguly rose to the occasion in stirring fashion. Sure, he began with a carve, but on this pitch even a sadist would not deny batsmen a slice of luck. From then on Ganguly, in the company of Yuvraj Singh, showed that strokeplay could be just as powerful a weapon as defence, even on the worst of pitches.
Smith made the mistake of keeping Paul Harris on for too long, and paid for it severely, as Ganguly came down the pitch and launched Harris over the in-field with impunity. The pressure that had been built up by the quick men was released as Yuvraj played a couple of energetic cover drives. But when he shaped to sweep Harris out of the ground he holed out, the partnership ending on 65.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Harbhajan Singh and Piyush Chawla came and went but Ganguly stood tall. What he lacked in technique he made up for in sheer willpower.
He found a way to score 87 before the threat of running out of partners forced him to try and heave a six inside out and was caught. Rarely has Ganguly had to work harder for his runs or have they been as valuable to the team.