India's quest for a series-levelling victory in the second Test against South Africa here at the Eden Gardens was hindered by the weather gods on Wednesday.
Overnight rain ensured play started no sooner than 10.30 a.m. on the fourth day. And an hour and 35 minutes after a delayed lunch, at 1.45 p.m. to be precise, the persistent gloom further darkened, forcing the players off the field. A steady, shimmering drizzle then held up play.
The murkiness lightened, allowing a restart at 3.20 p.m. It lasted one over. The 34.1 overs that were possible featured riveting cricket. India, seeking to protect both a proud home record and its No. 1 ranking, managed to extract Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis — a significant achievement, for they are South Africa's best at batting time.
India also dismissed Alviro Petersen, who, after making a century in his first Test innings, looked in fine touch in the second. India, however, couldn't shift Hashim Amla (49 batting). Amla has batted one ball short of 120 overs in the series thus far, relinquishing his wicket just once. M.S. Dhoni's bowlers must find a way past this batting bulwark early on Thursday to improve their chances of pressing for a win.
India will be encouraged that Thursday's forecast is better than Wednesday's. If the Met Office mandarins are to be believed, the fifth day of the Test will be partly cloudy; the likelihood of rain is only 10 per cent. For the record, they got Wednesday's forecast — scattered thundershowers and a 40 per cent chance of rain — right.
India's bowlers have, in theory, 98 overs to take seven South African wickets on the fifth day, with play scheduled to start at 8.45 a.m.
The evidence of the first four days suggests however that it's an optimistic assessment. The Indians will have to factor for fewer overs to play with, all the time ensuring that desperation doesn't get the better of them — easier said than done.
India's bowlers will also have to be more consistent than they were on Wednesday. There was some very good punctuated by some very ordinary. Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh took the new ball. It was a curious decision, but not one without precedent. Dhoni has thrown the new ball to his off-spinner in the past.
Harbhajan enjoyed the extra bounce of the harder ball, and once skilfully drifted a delivery past Petersen, the ball guided in its journey by the seam.
Although Zaheer forced Petersen to edge just past a diving V.V.S. Laxman at second slip and in another over troubled Smith, he couldn't manage the breakthrough in two short spells. Dhoni shuffled his bowlers around, making four changes before Amit Mishra struck with his first ball.
Smith played around a leg-break that ticked all the boxes for the leg-before decision: it may have pitched just outside the off-stump, but it turned to strike the left-hander in line; crucially it turned just enough — Mishra's incredible sidespin on the ball sometimes costs him for the ball does too much, but in this case, perhaps because the ball being only 12-overs old hadn't gripped nearly as much as an older ball, the turn was just sufficient.
Mishra later defeated Jacques Kallis with a terrific leg-break — certainly among the best of its kind that can be spun into existence. All series Mishra has wrapped South Africa right-handers around ripping leg-breaks without gaining the edge. On this occasion Kallis — who was in supreme touch (a pull and an on-drive as good any in the match) — managed to nick it.
This delivery is why Mishra needs to be persisted with: he is capable of defeating great batsmen in defence thanks to what he does both in the air with drift and dip, and off the surface with turn and — to a lesser extent — bounce.
In between, Harbhajan Singh, consistently India's best bowler on Wednesday, had Petersen caught at forward short-leg with an off-break that turned and jumped to elude the bat's middle.
Amla gets a reprieve
Harbhajan then nearly conquered Amla. The batsman glanced an off-break to backward short-leg where M. Vijay, who had lifted early from his crouch, couldn't get back down in time to complete the catch. Amla was on 10 then.
But the weather gods had the final say, allowing only 151 minutes of play. Dhoni might profitably consider including a propitiating ceremony among his tasks before Thursday morning.
South Africa — 1st innings: 296
India — 1st innings: 643 for six decl.
South Africa — 2nd innings: G. Smith lbw b Mishra 20 (33b, 2x4), A. Petersen c Badrinath b Harbhajan 21 (51b, 2x4), H. Amla (batting) 49 (80b, 7x4), J. Kallis c Dhoni b Mishra 20 (47b, 3x4), A. Prince (batting) 0 (4b); Extras (nb-5): 5. Total (for three wkts. in 35 overs): 115.
Fall of wickets: 1-36 (Smith), 2-54 (Petersen), 3-111 (Kallis).
India bowling: Zaheer 6-0-32-0, Harbhajan 13-3-31-1, Ishant 8-1-36-0, Mishra 7-3-15-2, Sehwag 1-0-1-0.