India were pressing on the pedal by the second afternoon of the Durban Test. In three hours and in less than 40 overs, India had surprised even the most optimistic of supporters. Nobody had foreseen a lead of 74 in the first innings, not with only 205 runs in the kitty and a bowling attack which had conceded over 273 runs in a session at Centurion.
But then India have two bowling attacks — one with Zaheer and one without him. The one thing which Zaheer can do is bring the best to their knees in a Test match. In nine Tests this year, Zaheer has had two five-wicket and one 10-wicket haul. His 41 wickets have cost him just over 22 runs per wicket. When the team is without him, teams run up over 600 runs without working up a sweat.
This might appear a little uncharitable to the irrepressible Harbhajan Singh, especially in the light of what he did in Durban on Monday. But then when the new-ball bowlers fail to make inroads, even the best of spinners can struggle to stem the rot. Harbhajan without Zaheer has been like a fatigued lion who is unable to keep the terriers at bay.
The one thing that India have done unfailingly in recent times is the spirit to hold their ground stoically. The recovery then comes from strange quarters. Harbhajan's two hundreds against New Zealand was a case in point. Or when VVS Laxman turned around two Tests this year when all seemed lost.
In Durban, as Zaheer looked incisive, the mood in the camp lifted quickly. India's fielding suddenly came alive and there was some brilliant work in the field. Fittingly, Rahul Dravid's 200th Test catch also arrived. South Africa were not prepared for this counter attack. The catching was sensational.
What this has done is to bestow radiance to this prized series between the two top Test teams. SA appeared to be in complete control with their strategy and execution, their ploy of pinning India down on green, moist pitches seemed so precise. But now India have reversed the trend and could also checkmate the hosts at their own game.
For that to happen they will need to be on top all-round. They have to set South Africa a target of at least 250 or 275. If that happens, they would be extremely grateful to the Zaheer-led attack. TCM