The clash of the Titans

By Dilip Mahanty

It was bloody. It was brutal. It was gladiatorial where combatants parried muscular thrusts with skilful ripostes. The heavy broadsword met impenetrable shield. Every advance was met with counter attack. No quarters asked, none given. It was a fight to the finish between two titans of Test cricket-the champion and the challenger! When dust settled at the end of it neither gladiator could raise his sword and administer the coup de grace! Prone on the ground with heaving chests and drained strength each eyed the other balefully, nodded and slowly rose to his feet and painfully staggered back to the offered sanctuary proud, defiant and unbowed! There was no winner or loser in the contest.

India landed in South Africa in early December 2010 to play 3 Tests and 6 ODIs including a 20-20.The   brilliant BCCI, as its wont, scheduled the series in such a way that it provided no warm up much for the team to acclimatize to the hard fast wickets of South Africa. BCCI officials must think that Indian batsmen should be ready to play any form of cricket against any opposition in any venue without practice! Luckily some players arrived earlier, through Gary Kirsten’s insistence, and had some net practice.

Seeing the general “unpreparedness” of the visitors for the First Test, Graeme Smith must have chortled! As is the fashion these days in international cricket –  mental disintegration attempts started as soon as the opponent arrived. Hard, fast, green pitches were predicted by the media. Chin music was promised by Smith and snide remarks were made about India’s inability to offer a decent challenge to South Africa during past tours and that India’s No 1 Test crown was contentious.

The Centurion Park at Johannesburg was lively and fast with recent rain. SA put India into bat and rained hail and brimstones at the Indians. The Indian batsmen ducked, weaved and swatted futilely against the SA grenades hurled at over 150 kmh at them by Steyn and Morkel. Except for a composed 38 by Tendulkar the others had no stomach for a fight and the innings score of 136   lacked courage and skill. Morkel and Steyn ran havoc.

India’s bowling was inexperienced,wayward and wanting in the absence of Zaheer Khan who had not recovered sufficiently from his earlier injury. Amla and DeVilliers piled on the misery with centuries while Kallis got his first double century in Tests. SA took pity on the guests and declared at 620 for 4.

The second Indian innings was infinitely better.Tendulkar called on all his supreme skill and experience deflecting and despatching the flung missiles to all parts of the field. Gambhir and Dhoni provided stellar support with near centuries. Tendulkar’s stirring, unbeaten century, sadly, was not enough  to save India from an innings and 25 runs defeat! The pain of loss far outweighed the pleasure of scoring a 50th Test century for this legendary batsman and it showed on his face.

While most of the batsmen redeemed themselves somewhat in the second innings Raina’s faulty technique against pace was badly exposed. He looked completely out of place in this company.

Battered, bruised but still defiant India tottered onto its feet for the second Test at a more friendly Durban. The return of Zaheer ,in charge of the attack once more, charged the team with hope. India batted first but found Dale Steyn ripping out its innards with hostile and accurate pace. A score of 205 was hopelessly below  par and a despondent team, with a prayer on its lips, set out to defend it.

Cometh the hour cometh the man! Zaheer, in a masterly exhibition of dazzling swing bowling, had the South Africans in a daze as his deliveries swung and darted around to dismantle the batting. Harbhajan weighed in to complete the debacle. A score of 131 gave India a handy lead of 74 on a fast deteriorating wicket.

The second venture to the crease, even with a good lead, was fraught with danger as wickets tumbled through careless batting. When it seemed that only a small total would be required to be chased down by the hosts one man, a very very special one, decided to take the battle to the opposition.VVS Laxman (who else?) brought out his silken mastery to keep the marauding bowlers at bay with a scintillating 96.This ensured a defendable total of 302. The pressure got to the fragile psyche of the South Africans, reputed to choke at key moments, and the team could only muster 215. The loss, by 87 runs, leveled the series and deflated the bloated expectation the hosts had of a clean sweep in view of the abject surrender of India in the first encounter!

Honours even and with rising hope India prepared itself for an encounter of the Third kind ”“a series victory in South Africa!

The scenic Cape Town set up an idyllic setting for this encounter.SA batted first and put up a challenging 362, largely due to the indomitable will of the unheralded Jacque Kallis. Kallis’century and Sreesanth’s exceptional swing dominated the innings. India’s reply of 364 was founded on the redoubtable Tendulkar’s 146 and a valiant 93 by Gambhir. The others had precious little to contribute.

SA’s second essay was starting to flounder as wickets started falling in a heap. Again the indomitable will of Kallis came in the way of India’s rising hope of a series win. Struggling with intense pain and doubling up frequently because of it, Kallis refused to surrender.His second century of the match could count among the most defiant of all times. With tailenders in support he ensured that only his team could win the Test and the series. India could only hope for a draw. Harbhajan, with not much support at the other end, accounted for 7 South Africans single handedly.

With 344 to win on a deteriorating track India grimly held on with a grit not displayed frequently on a 5th day wearing pitch. Gambhir’s doggedness and determined support from the middle order rendered the match inconclusive. The series was drawn with kudos being shared equally.

The series brought into limelight 3 of the greatest players to have played the game. A supreme batsman whose records can never be bettered, an allrounder who could easily be ranked as the second best of all times slightly below the greatest of them all – Sir Garry Sobers and a fast bowler whose pace, hostility and strike rate would rank among the best.

The slugfest involving these 3 iconic cricketers Tendulkar, Kallis and Steyn can seldom be replicated. It was a clash which was watched with a feeling resembling bloodlust, excitement and awe among millions of watchers around the globe.  As mentioned before it was gladiatorial! What a disappointment it was only a 3 match series. It deserved 5 Tests.

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