As superbly as Wasim Jaffer batted for his third Test century in the series-deciding encounter at Newlands on Tuesday, it was a performance surpassed — at least as far as India were concerned — by the head groundsman at the famous venue, Bennet Hewe.
After spending 20 years as an assistant on the ground staff, Hewe’s loyalty was finally rewarded this year with a promotion to the top post. And if India go on to win this Test, as they should, then his first offering to the international cricket calendar should be worth at least a luxury holiday to Goa courtesy of Rahul Dravid’s team — if not honorary Indian citizenship.
Jaffer is one of the least emotional members of the Indian squad but even his normally languid body language betrayed the pleasant surprise that everyone felt when they saw a pitch that might easily have been transported straight from Delhi.
Bone dry and short of grass, it offered the home side’s seamers nothing, while persistent hot sunshine and virtually windless conditions ensured there was no movement through the air either. But even worse for Graeme Smith’s team were the scuffed and worn patches at either end that will deteriorate quickly as the match progresses — to the delight of Anil Kumble.
South Africa’s players, unsurprisingly, were appalled at Hewe’s work. When Rahul Dravid called correctly at the toss, he could barely contain his delight saying with characteristic understatement, “It looks a little dry and there are some cracks; it should turn a bit as the match goes on.”
There may even have been the suggestion of a smile on his face as the words were delivered.
Jaffer’s new partner at the top of the order was Dinesh Karthik who earned his 11th Test cap when Mahendra Dhoni's badly bruised fingers failed to carry him through a fitness test on Monday.
Having argued hard, along with vice-captain VVS Laxman, for the retention of Virender Sehwag despite a woeful tour, Dravid conceded that the dynamic match-winner would be ‘hidden’ in the middle-order rather than face the new ball. If South Africa could swallow their pride enough to hide Herschelle Gibbs, then why not do the same for Sehwag?
Like children investigating a dead snake, Jaffer and Karthik prodded cautiously in the morning session to ensure the animal wasn’t simply hibernating. It wasn’t. As befitted his newfound status as senior partner, Jaffer took the lead and played with increasing confidence after lunch, which India reached on 61 without loss.
His half-century was watchfully accumulated from 114 deliveries with eight boundaries and the opening stand reached unimagined riches — given the Indian openers’ display in the opening two Tests — at 153 without loss which was when tea was taken.
But South Africa’s debutant spinner, tall left armer Paul Harris, finally broke through in the first over of the final session when Karthik’s doughty innings of 63 ended with an inside edge onto his pad, which Hashim Amla caught at silly point.
Greg Chappell's unashamed admiration for Karthik's ability was fully vindicated with a half-century, despite Smith snuffing a chance at slip when Karthik was on 32.
If Sehwag can now justify Dravid's faith in him, the compromised batting order can still see the tourists reach a total of 450+, which will be enough to place the home side under severe pressure.
Dravid (29) looked in sublime form with five sweetly timed boundaries before unexpectedly edging a straight delivery from Pollock to the wicket-keeper. There were further celebration for the South Africans when Dale Steyn struck with the second new ball shortly before the close, to end Jaffer's 244-ball, six-hour vigil for 116 — his outside edge flew at furious pace to second slip where Kallis did well to hang on.
The 28-year-old opener has grabbed the chance of a second international career with both hands having scored three centuries in his last nine Tests.
Inconsistency in selection has been a problem in the past, but Dilip Vengsarkar, Chappell and Dravid should take due credit for their faith they reposed in Jaffer despite a poor Test in Johannesburg, and two innings which promised much but delivered only scores of 28 and 26 during the second Test in Durban.
A quietly confident Sachin Tendulkar (28*) will resume this morning in the company of VVS Laxman while the promotion of Karthik means that India have the luxury of Sourav Ganguly at number seven. As Smith and his tired bowlers are all too aware, that represents an awful lot of batting with which they still have to cope.
As much as they will all enjoy batting on a pitch inadvertently tailored to cater to their every whim, it should be Kumble licking his lips most at the prospect of performing on days three, four and five.
A drawn series might well be regarded as a triumph for Dravid and his players, but they will all know by now that victory is well within their capabilities if they have the nerve and desire.