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Proteas hold the aces at Durban

SA openers give their side a good start in 2nd innings after India's poor show, reports Kadambari Murali. Scorecard

india Updated: Dec 29, 2006 18:55 IST

Late on Wednesday evening, Graeme Smith looked like a man on the threshold of a breakdown. His usual semi-sardonic, semi-amused smile was missing as he looked around. The brow was creased, the eyes were dull, no mocking gleam lighting them. He seemed weary, worried and woeful as he paused distractedly to chat.

The South African skipper had reason to fret. His Test team (by his own admission) is far behind his one-day team in terms of results, performances and attitude. They had just lost a Test no one expected them to lose and worse, lost it in embarrassing fashion, collapsing to South Africa's lowest score after the end of their isolation.

Smith himself has had a torrid time of it on the field, through most of the one-day series, the first Test and the first innings here. He had dropped a vital catch off Sachin Tendulkar earlier in the day, has been lampooned as Zaheer Khan's bunny for over a month, had public spats with the head of the selection committee and has apparently been told that if the lack of results continue, he'll soon be looking for a new job — or something along those lines.

And if you could just see the kind of bad press Smith (a man who had just led his team to a 4-0 one-day whitewash of India a few weeks ago) has been receiving in the South African media, you would think the Indian media and public are always amazingly kind to their team. The knives have been out in no uncertain terms.

So when the South African skipper, reputedly a thinking man, led his team out to the field on Thursday, he probably had thought after anxious thought churning through his head. The stakes for the Proteas, their captain and their coach Mickey Arthur (whose contract comes up for review on January 9) were extremely high.

But often, when the chips are down, people find hidden reserves of strength, mental and physical, to take them through — and that's exactly what Smith and his men seemed to have found on Thursday.

Their body language was markedly different on the day — the bowlers got their lines and lengths much better and bowled with such aggressive venom that most of the Indian bats would find themselves marked in some way or the other today. The fielders backed it up with some splendid fielding and Smith himself seemed completely in charge.

India, who depended so much on Sachin Tendulkar (unbeaten on 46 overnight) to see them through, lost him early to a loose shot that cut short what looked like a 100 for the taking.

Ganguly came, fell and unnecessarily glared — in that order. Though Laxman stuck on at one end to remain unbeaten on 50 and Sreesanth played a delightful cameo, India lost seven wickets on the day for only 137 to end up with 240, 88 behind SA's 328.

They would have hopefully taken note of how the SA openers batted. In fact, watching AB de Villiers (on 31) and Smith bat today has been interesting for reasons other than the focus and sense of purpose they showed.

At 22 years and 300-odd days, de Villiers is being labelled as one of South Africa's golden boys, their hope for the future. On the field, his body language bears the careless confidence of the young, while there is a laughing assurance about him off the field.

At 25 years and 300-odd days (they are both February-born), only three years the older, Smith carries a far greater burden. At de Villiers age, he was offered a contentious captaincy and the years have seen him mature into it, bringing a canny shrewdness that has tempered the brash self-confidence of before. Unlike de Villiers, he is probably not allowed his caprices. They make a fascinating contrast, these two young men who will likely be part of South African cricket for years to come.

All in all, though, this has been a really action-packed day of cricket, one that began with an umpire going off with heart trouble (Mark Benson had palpitations and is under observation in the ICU of the St Augustine's Hospital here), saw Tendulkar field at short-leg for the first time in memory, witnessed lots of sniping between rival players, including one more episode of the Sreesanth-Nel show, and ended with a huge power failure, which saw the batsmen being offered light for the third day in a row.

They came back on, along with the lights, some 45 minutes later but stayed a bare 10 minutes, when the umpires decided the light was not enough for play, much to the batsmen's indignation.

Anyway, on Friday hopefully, we'll have some lights — and more fast-paced action. A lot is going to depend on how India's young pacemen bowl because unless they deliver again, with the Proteas already ahead by 152 with all 10 wickets in hand, it looks like the hosts hold the aces. Smith, batting on 28, will probably not have an easy night, but will perhaps at least breathe a little more easily. Life cannot possibly look as bad as it did 24 hours ago.