V.V.S. Laxman (143 n.o.) and M.S. Dhoni (132 n.o.) did everything asked of them on the third day of the second Test here at the Eden Gardens.
The pair saw off the threat of the second new ball, consolidated India’s position between lunch and tea, and upped the ante in the final session. They were helped, to some extent, by a South African fielding side that struggled with its catching.
But largely Laxman and Dhoni made their own luck on their way to well-deserved centuries, adding to Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar’s efforts. It was only the second instance of four Indian batsmen scoring hundreds in an innings. Laxman and Dhoni’s unbroken seventh-wicket stand of 259 — an Indian record — helped the home side amass a lead of 347.
Dhoni caught everyone by surprise when he declared India’s innings closed, but the tactical advantage the surprise conferred couldn’t be pressed. South Africa’s openers faced five deliveries from Zaheer Khan before the umpires offered them light. As a result of the early close, play will start 18 minutes early — at 8.57 a.m. — on Wednesday.
Tuesday morning, which began under milky skies, found the Test willing to be claimed by either side. India, with a lead of 46, had a better grip on it, but it wasn’t beyond South Africa’s powers to wrench the game from the home side. Fortunately for India, it had in Laxman just the man for increasing a lead under duress.
Laxman, who had crossed the 7000-run mark on the second day, started the third by flicking Dale Steyn either side of square-leg for boundaries, the touch not as exquisite as one has come to expect from this batting artiste but still better than what most batsmen can manage. A pretty drive, inside-out through cover against Paul Harris, suggested that Laxman’s silken feel had returned.
Amit Mishra, at the other end, was annoying the opposition like any self-respecting night-watchman does. Nothing provokes the ire of a bowling side as surely as a non-specialist batsman chancing his arm and getting away with it.
What made it worse for the South African’s was the knowledge that they had contributed to their distress. Jacques Kallis, at slip, had dropped Mishra off Harris when the batsman was on five. It was an incredibly difficult chance, for Kallis had little time to react with the stroke being made off the back-foot.
Mishra rubs it in
Mishra then rubbed it in, upper-cutting Kallis for four before hitting the bowler through point.
Kallis eventually redeemed himself, timing his leap at slip perfectly to pull down an edged upper-cut that was travelling quickly. But Mishra had helped Laxman increase the lead to 88.
Steyn found swing with the second new ball and troubled both Laxman and Dhoni during an extended spell.
The South African fast-bowler was desperately unlucky, for several times he had the batsmen poking at rapid out-swingers. But the luck that’s needed for a determining performance deserted him.
Dhoni’s sharp mind was in evidence as he played himself in. He offered a straight bat to anything that threatened the stumps, batting with a crouched watchfulness.
A short ball from Kallis sat up; Dhoni duly pulled it for four. Steyn strayed marginally outside off-stump, the away movement creating width; Dhoni cut without fuss.
Offered a ball on his pads, Dhoni worked it behind square. It was clear-headed, intelligent batting.
Both batsmen were fortunate to pass 23. Laxman, who had spent 37 balls on 21, inside-edged Morne Morkel past a diving A.B. de Villiers behind the stumps; Dhoni edged Harris low past Kallis left hand.
But neither batsman seemed affected by the half-chances, and by lunch, India led by 135.
South Africa had a chance after lunch to get rid of Laxman, but Duminy, who has had a woeful tour, couldn’t complete the catch at point. Again, it wasn’t a simple chance, for it necessitated a dive forward.
In many ways it was a barometer of South Africa’s catching: when a side is feeling good about its catching, these are the sorts of chances that stick.
Laxman, on 48 then, progressed serenely towards his fourth hundred at this ground. The off-drive where he seems to do no more than wave a royal bat at the ball was in evidence.
On one occasion he dug out a Morkel yorker; even this less-than-delicate task was achieved with considerable grace. While the crowd was marvelling at the skill involved in thwarting so formidable a delivery, the ball after defeating mid-on was crossing the boundary rope!
Dhoni let loose after reaching his century, biffing the bowlers to all parts. Some have fretted that Dhoni, in developing into an all-round batsman, had lost the explosiveness of stroke-play that characterised his early style. He showed on Tuesday that he can still summon those powers.