Friday, February 19, 2010

India's amazing win over South Africa

Harbhajan Singh
India's amazing win over South Africa proves Test cricket is thriving

Test cricket, eh? Supposedly on ­life-support, with administrators and media alike lavishing most attention on the pretty young thing that is Twenty20, Tests continue to confound and enthrall us all. In the space of a little more than six months, we've had epics at Cardiff, Centurion, Cape Town, Dunedin, Perth and now Eden Gardens. South Africa have been part of three of those nail-biters, and finished disappointed every single time. This defeat, in front of the most raucous crowd in India, will hurt the most, especially after Hashim Amla batted 60 seconds short of 500 minutes in a display of defiance as brave as it was skilled.

Spare a thought too for Morne Morkel, who sank to his knees in anguish after being trapped leg before with just nine balls of the scheduled 98 overs remaining. A month ago, in the shadow of Table Mountain, he bowled the final over as Graeme Onions preserved England's series lead. Here, he and Amla kept India on tenterhooks for 126 balls after Paul Harris had been caught in the slips.

Wayne Parnell, who'd endured a torrid initiation to the subcontinent with ball in hand, had played his part too, with a 64-ball 22 after more experienced hands in the middle order had fallen short. But ultimately, this final day was about Harbhajan Singh, the lion of Eden, and an India side with pride and the No1 ranking on the line after the four-day mauling in Nagpur.

By morning, they knew that they'd have to cope without Zaheer Khan, whose nous with new ball and old has been such a huge factor in home victories over Australia, England and Sri Lanka. But Harbhajan, the 13-wicket hero of 2001, stepped into the breach admirably, nudging South Africa towards defeat with flight, turn and sheer cussedness. Amla and Ashwell Prince, with 98 runs in his previous nine innings, kept India at bay nearly all morning before Harbhajan tossed one up invitingly outside off stump. Prince's checked drive went only as far as mid-off, and when Amit Mishra, who has the thankless task of trying to fill the void left behind by Anil Kumble, produced a peach of a googly to see off AB de Villiers, architect of an epochal win in Perth, the crowd sensed an early finish.

As the afternoon wore on, it became clear that the South Africans, and especially Amla, had no intention of running up the white flag. MS Dhoni tried everything, rotating his bowlers, changing ends and even trying an over of Sachin Tendulkar's Shane Warne imitations. When the spinners tired, the ball was thrown to Ishant Sharma, struggling horribly to find the rhythm and menace that so impressed in two series against Australia in 2008.

It's testament to Ishant's strength of character that he managed to dismiss Parnell and Harris. At times, it was like watching Steve Harmison's travails in the latter half of his career, with the odd unplayable delivery in the midst of dross. Through it all, Amla was almost serene, taking his series tally to 490 runs. India got him just once after bowling 1,033 balls to him, and he batted for more than 23 hours in conditions that more celebrated batsmen have never come to terms with.

"I've been quite fortunate on a few occasions," he said with typical modesty afterwards. "There were a few drops here and there, so I could've been dismissed before. Every professional cricketer goes through certain tours and series where he excels. I just been fortunate that this tour has been my opportunity."

The more you watch him, the more you're reminded of Rahul Dravid, both in terms of the incredible powers of concentration and the utter imperviousness to external pressures. Before his debut at this venue five years ago, he had told me: "The [Indian] batting line-up has huge quality, but I'd love to talk to Dravid when there's time." After this series, it won't be long before he's mentioned in such august company.

Gripping matches like this deserve the biggest stage and the unbelievable atmosphere at what is Indian cricket's theatre of dreams shamed the board officials who hadn't scheduled a Test here since December 2007 for a host of petty reasons. No one quibbles with one-day cricket and T20 being played in every corner of this antique land, but if Test cricket is to remain in rude health, Eden Gardens and Chepauk must get at least one Test a year. Playing in front of empty stands at Mohali and Nagpur merely mocks a great tradition. As a friend wrote to me: "Can you imagine England picking Grace Road above Lord's, or the Aussies Hobart over the MCG/SCG?"

The noise as Harbhajan came on to bowl what turned out to be the final three balls was just deafening, and that too in a stadium that has lost two huge stands to World Cup renovation. Men and women, young and old, everyone was on their feet, with fast handclaps, chants and roars creating an atmosphere similar to that which precipitated the Australian collapse from 166 for 3 to 212 all out nine years ago.

"The crowd was fantastic," said Harbhajan later. "Eden has always been special. I have not heard this kind of noise anywhere in India. In Test matches, we don't always get crowds but at Eden, you get crowds for the whole five days. It does not matter whether India is batting or bowling."

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