SA closer to great escape
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Hashim Amla, right and Ashwell Prince (AP)
Cape Town – With more than a little help from the weather gods, South Africa’s white-knuckle ride in Kolkata just got even whiter.
A severely curtailed fourth day’s play (34 overs) in the second Test against India on Wednesday has presented them with a significantly better chance than before they started it of saving the match and stealing the series.
Put it this way: trying to save a Test with seven wickets in hand on the final day is rather more realistic than trying to do so with 10 intact and a whole two days in prospect.
And yet India, let’s not forget, are also chipping away at their victory task as diligently as the weather would allow them.
Spearheaded by the suddenly effective leg-spin of Amit Mishra, they boast three scalps including those of the Proteas’ most seasoned and proven batting duo, Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis.
Those were extremely damaging torpedoes to a South African hull that is now listing 232 runs in arrears: enough to suggest, I think, that the odds remain weighted at least 70-30 in favour of India completing the job on Thursday.
Importantly from a home point of view, much sunnier skies are anticipated over Eden Gardens when both the series and these nations’ statuses at the top of the world rankings go right down to the wire.
Even if bad light intervenes – likeliest late in the third session, you would imagine – an extended day’s quota of 98 overs is a lot of surviving to do if you are a plucky remaining South African batsman.
But at least Hashim Amla is still there, looking as classically composed and confident as he has done throughout this mini-series.
The KwaZulu-Natalian presently sports 416 runs over the course of the two Tests for just one dismissal … imagine if he is still there at Thursday’s close! But whatever happens in the salvation quest, Amla is going to be right up there for player of the series.
It was an inspired move, I thought, to promote the struggling Ashwell Prince back to his favourite Test position of No 5 for South Africa’s all-important second innings.
It means that the Proteas have a left-right combo presently at the crease to slightly unsettle the Indian spinners, with a right-hander in AB de Villiers to come and then another “leftie” in JP Duminy.
This is a crucial time not only for the national team but also for both Prince and Duminy’s current Test careers.
Whichever of these out-of-form customers prospers markedly better in this innings, perhaps, will hang onto his spot for the first Test in the West Indies at Sabina Park from June 10, as Alviro Petersen has emphatically booked himself a berth for that encounter and Mark Boucher will also have assumed his wicket-keeping spot again.
From the dreamy start of 150 on first exposure as an opening batsman against Australia at Newlands last season, Prince’s stocks in that slot have tumbled like an Alpine avalanche, and Duminy may always be slightly advantaged in the middle-order now by offering his off-spin as an extra skill and more “investment” potential to the side as well.
But it is certainly high noon on Thursday for both players.
Remember also that there is no Boucher to “guts it out” at the crease – one of his favourite responsibilities – although there is healthy competition among the much-of-a-muchness Proteas tail-enders for positions eight to 11.
This would be a grand occasion for one of them to send his batting credentials soaring, perhaps in a lengthy stand with a more specialist willow-wielder, wouldn’t it?
The pitch is still not showing pronounced evidence of truly nasty wear and tear, and leaden skies and so little activity on it on day four will not exactly have hurried further its decline.
It also seems as if Zaheer Khan has some sort of thigh niggle; should the strike bowler be struggling and the Proteas mount a large partnership, their already low-staffed bowling resources may be stretched even closer to the limit.
So a nerve-jangling finale awaits us: my money, I’m afraid, stays on the team who have mostly had an iron grip on this Test match.
But my wallet has also been unpleasantly looted in sporting flutters before …