India in SA
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Proteas must stay positive
Cape Town – Just how badly do the Proteas want to win, as opposed to make sure they do not lose, the gripping final Test at Newlands here?
Similarly, how much broad attacking intent will we see from India over the last two days of the ding-dong, high-quality contest?
After all, they have only ever lost Test series previously in this country: somewhere deep in their collective minds, is there a tendency to believe 1-1 will represent enough by way of moral triumph, and affirmation of their current status as top-ranked power?
Whatever India’s intentions on Wednesday and Thursday, South African enthusiasts, quite naturally, will be willing Graeme Smith’s side toward victory.
And with a bit of luck a significant element of urgency remains part of the Proteas’ dressing-room mindset because, with due respect to their opponents’ top-perch status, they must be painfully aware that a squared series outcome would really amount to “mission failed” in so many ways.
South Africa are under rightful pressure, I think, to prevail as they have not managed to win either of the headline home Test series over the past two summers – so losing or sharing this one would amount to an unwanted and rather frustrating hat-trick.
First there was the awful disappointment of crashing 2-1 to Australia on our soil shortly after earning an historic 2-1 success Down Under in 2008/09, and then last season the Proteas failed by a whisker to beat England in a four-Test battle.
So yes, although this became a slightly dubious and confusing catch-phrase adopted by the national team not many years ago, “brave cricket” really should remain in their script as much as possible for the remainder of this match.
It is true that losing two wickets – though one was only the nightwatchman Paul Harris – shortly before stumps on Tuesday was an undesired setback and there are also lingering concerns about the ability of injured kingpin Jacques Kallis to bat at some point in the innings without too much discomfort.
But 50 runs on with eight second-innings wickets intact is still a pretty tidy position to be in, and if fresh stability and impetus is achieved by the unbeaten pair of Alviro Petersen and Hashim Amla in the first session of day four, then hopefully the Proteas will be in a position where stroke-players like AB de Villiers and company below them can drive them on toward a lay-down-the-gauntlet declaration or at least meaty enough total.
Off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, who grabbed both South African evening scalps, noted at the close-of-play press conference that the bounce was becoming a little inconsistent, which will obviously hearten him and his Indian bowling colleagues ... but also the Proteas attack as they contemplate fourth-innings destructiveness.
And Smith and his fellow-South African strategists ought to keep in mind, too, India’s second-innings misfortune and frailty (although they did not bat last then) the last time these teams met at Newlands under identical series circumstances in 2006/07.
After batting first and making 414, they were bundled out for just 169 the second time around and the Proteas eventually cantered home by five wickets to clinch the honours 2-1.
South Africa have (or at least have had) a mental stranglehold of note over India at home: they must do everything in their powers not to surrender it this summer.
The hosts’ bowling hero yet again on the third day, Dale Steyn, wasn’t making any daring statements of Eddie Barlow-like intent when grilled on the match situation: “We must get ourselves first into a position where we can’t lose before (striking out for a victory).”
Those who know their cricket will also know that this isn’t automatically a defensive thought, especially as there is quite possibly time enough left in the Test to “make the game safe” as first order of business, but then hurl the kitchen sink in a quest to win as well.
But it would be a massive anti-climax if South Africa take the option of trying to crawl their way into an obvious, too-scared-to-win-it kind of laager.
Not only might it have fatal consequences if the scoreboard goes stagnant, wickets suddenly topple and India start putting significant numbers of fielders close to the bat, but it would also only increase the global perception – and believe me, it does exist – that the Proteas are one of the most conservative and sometimes dour sides on the Test circuit.
Within reason and with due respect to circumstance as it develops, of course, a bit of pizzazz from them could go a long way.
Harbhajan reckons India have “a slight edge”, even as he added a mildly handbrake statement “we’re not thinking too far ahead”.
If South Africa daringly take the bull by the horns on Wednesday, psychological mastery could tilt productively back their way, perhaps even with startling stealth.
Almost 50 000 fans have flocked through the turnstiles for the fixture thus far, and they have been rewarded with some frankly top-drawer action, not to mention supreme individual majesty from the likes of Kallis, Steyn and Sachin Tendulkar.
This game, the series as a whole and Test cricket generally deserves a grandstand finish at Newlands.
C’mon, who wants it more?