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Why timid India failed to grasp their chance at Newlands

Trevor Chesterfield

Updated: January 7, 2011, 3:33 PM IST
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There were going to be no Jacques Kallis style man of the series heroics on the last day at Newlands. All too understandable, too.

While England swept aside Australia with bold, imaginative if mediocre performances throughout the Ashes series, it was still hard to fathom India's approach in the shadow of Table Mountain.

From the moment an edgy, uncertain Virender Sehwag fell to a regulation catch, it was obvious India were not going in search of the 340-victory target. Such batting timidity, along with a couple of missed sharp chances, explained India had decided the easier option was the draw to share the series 1-1.

After the success at Kingsmead, it was anticipated both captains would attempt to grasp the nettle and try to wring a result at Newlands. There was a lot on offer, too. There was one problem. The pitch became flatter than it had in the game against England last year when Dale Steyn bowled a remarkable second innings new-ball spell.

Unfortunately, his figures of two for 74 in the England second innings do little to highlight the swing and seam movement missing on Day Five at Newlands in this Test against India. South Africa needed a spinner with sharper movement off the pitch than Paul Harris has been able to deliver.

Now former Pakistan A leg-spinner, Imran Tahir, on attaining his naturalisation, has been rushed into the limited overs squad. It came too late to help South Africa's cause at Newlands.

Then again, how many overs would be needed to win the game? Too easy a target in such conditions and Graeme Smith would have been roundly criticised by a media that so often fails to grasp the ambience of a five-day game.

Also forgotten by the media, is how Smith has had experience of setting a target below 300 only to see South Africa lose. In the back of his mind would have been the Sydney, New Year 2006. He was not prepared for a repeat of that game when he declared and set Australia 287 in 76 overs to lose the Test by eight wickets.

Ricky Ponting hammered a masterful undefeated 143 at a run rate almost nudging 90 as the target was achieved in the 61st over after lunch on day five. He took the criticism for a bold decision as well after his bowlers let him down. Andre Nel as well as Johan Botha were haemorrhaging runs.

Smith had too many memories in the aftermath of that Sydney debacle to try it again in conditions he knows too well and begs the question of when will curators prepare fair surfaces. India's flat surfaces make it easy for batsmen to post challenging totals.

At Newlands, a declaration of the South African innings too early would have set up a target of 300 plus in 100 or so overs. It would have given India, despite Sehwag's dodgy form, a chance to manufacture a Sydney repeat. This is where India decided not to take chances.

One comment read somewhere suggested that it would be all too easy. India winning by seven wickets with Sehwag scoring a century and Rahul Dravid getting into the 80s. Well, with an average of 24.00 from his six innings in this series, and Dravid with one of 20 in his six appearances, it shows how there are those who believe in the tooth fairy will rescue the side.

Sure, South Africa can blame themselves for losing at Kingsmead. As shown at Newlands, the dismissal of Kallis was crucial to their cause. Tests are like that. It requires patience, and a lot of it, as a good chess player would explain, it is a question of the correct moves.

Despite his two dismissals in Durban, he did enough to secure an average of 166 from his five innings and just how he would have performed had he been fit to bowl is another question.

While this is more about South Africa than India, who squared a series for the first time in South Africa, those media 'boffins' now criticising Smith and Mahendra Singh Dhoni for not being brave by going for a result, should rethink their options. One is of how such a talented array of batsmen playing attacking strokes instead of grinding out a draw. How would you have played it?

For Smith, no spinner of the calibre of Harbhajan Sing to call on and no Kallis to bowl his occasional cutters to cause a false stroke or two. It so easy to suggest a declaration.

When it backfires as it did at Sydney. Then what? Smith becomes the villain. So would have Dhoni if such a talented team, lost their way going for such a total and been dismissed under 200.There was no Curate's Egg decision or a question of being offered a Hobson Choice for that matter.

It was always going to be a question of who was the bolder of the two sides in such a situation and so many Indian supporters and media, as at Centurion miss the point. India eked out 166 for three at 2.02 runs an over.

Try attacking field placings was one comment sent in an email. It makes you wonder if such people were watching the same game at one stage with a cluster of fieldsmen around the bat.

Is it heading for an icon status? Well, the CSA chief executive, Gerald Majola is arguing for this; no less that four Tests a series in future tours involving the sides, whether in India or South Africa.

While all this has been going on, there is lament in Australia as well as shock ay how they have crumbled to a 3-1 defeat against quality England bowling, with the hard work of opener Alistair Cook the foundation of three victories against what has largely been an appalling bowling attack. No character at all at times as it was mauled in successive Tests in Melbourne and Sydney.

To suggest though, as some have, this England side is the number one in the Test rankings is asking to believe how Mohammad Amir bowled his no balls at Lord's for the fun of it.Such has been the jingoistic comment in some UK media sites there is no question. According to the world rankings, England are officially third, behind India and South Africa.

They have the chance to claim the official top spot when they face Sachin Tendulkar et al in England this summer. And after their clinical destruction of Australia, who would bet against England or suggest they are not worthy of top spot? Well, the outcome might be a tad different to this rose coloured spectacles view.

First Published: January 7, 2011, 3:33 PM IST

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