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Ntini's strike jolts Indian chase

india Updated: Dec 30, 2006 11:07 IST
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India probably exited Kingsmead with a collective prayer, "let there be darkness or rain". And with showers being predicted for Saturday, perhaps their prayers will be answered. At the moment, though, at 38-2, things look difficult for the visitors. When Wasim Jaffer and Sachin Tendulkar unhesitatingly accepted the offer of light shortly after tea, they must have hoped that this day would follow precedent, and that the light would not get better and they could just go back to their rooms and prepare to battle on the morrow.

Eventually, that's what happened and stumps were drawn without any more play. As there were still 35 overs left, this took the number of overs lost due to bad light so far to over 100 - more than a day's play, in fact!

In contrast to the Indian batsmen, who walked off quickly, the South African players moved off slowly and as Graeme Smith's face flashed on the big screen, it was a study in ferocious frustration. Smith and his team would know how important every minute is in their quest for an elusive Test victory, one that would see them level the series and stave off the vicious criticism they have been under since the 123-run loss at the Wanderers.

The Proteas skipper would also have known that if he could have got a few more overs at the Indians on the day under helpful conditions, and grabbed at least one more wicket, South Africa would have moved tantalizingly closer to a win. After all, when light was offered to the Indians, his bowlers had scented blood and the big fish was already netted.

Dame Fortune did not smile on India, despite their grabbing six Proteas wickets before lunch. The stage, after all that, was set for Rahul Dravid to do what he is best known for - be the proverbial wall that would stand between the Proteas and victory. But the wall was breached soon after tea by a decision that could well see this Test go out of India's hands. Dravid was declared caught behind off Ntini but television replays failed to show a nick and the noise was probably bat hitting pad. But gone he was.

Before that at tea, India, chasing 354 for a win, were already on the backfoot at 18-1, with Virender Sehwag's dismal form continuing and increasing the odds on his not playing the third Test. Dravid was there, circumspect, and at the other end was Jaffer, probably hoping that finally, his moment had arrived.

India would be hoping that that is indeed so - they have long waited on this tour for both, or at least one of the openers to stand and see off the new ball. Though Jaffer did a bit in the first innings here, on the whole, it hasn't happened.

At the moment, though, he is looking positive and will hopefully carry on from here on Saturday. It is never easy being an opener, and coming out to face fresh, fire-breathing pacemen looking to either disembowel you or, at the very least, settle for your wicket can be a scary experience. Under the current circumstances, on a pacy, bouncy wicket (the kind the Indians are not used to) with a greying sky and overcast conditions, when the ball is moving quite a bit, batting is invariably tougher than normal.

But that is what sets a good opener apart from the rest and Jaffer would know that. He would not have to look far for inspiration, though - just rewind 24 hours or so to when the South African openers Smith (58) and AB de Villiers (47) played with a fierce determination under remarkably similar conditions.

In fact, they played that way this morning too, purposefully hanging around even while punishing every available delivery during their 99-run stand that was the cornerstone of the 265-8 that South Africa finally declared on. The other major score in the Proteas second essay came much lower down the order, from a man who just seems to come out, time and time again, and do his best for his country in whichever way possible.

Irfan Pathan, probably seeing this game at home in India, would do well to watch Shaun Pollock carefully. The 33-year-old, who was felicitated for getting to 400 Test wickets on Thursday, also has a batting average of around 32 and has been doing all that he does over 100 Tests for 11 years now. That is the kind of role India are looking at the young man from Baroda to do for them. A role that all of India once believed he would perform with élan. He did, for an all too brief while, and that is India's tragedy.

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