Did India do enough in the last 10 overs with the bat? That was the question that floated in the mind after they had added just 69 to finish on 299, and it became more pronounced when South Africa reached 62 for 1 in nine overs without any fuss in the chase.
Enter Harbhajan Singh, a man who often gives the impression of being at a war with the world, against real and imagined critics. “Utne bhi gaye guzre hote to ghar pey baithe rehte (If I was so ordinary, I would be sitting at home),” he had once said. In a delightful first spell of six overs, he turned the game on its head by taking two wickets for not too many, and more importantly, showed how vulnerable the South Africans can look against spin.
On his bad days, the charge sheet against him is pretty simple: Bowls too quick, tends to be flat, lets self-doubts take over and rushes up things. Wednesday was certainly not one of those days. The ball swerved slower through the air, the trajectory cut a decent parabola, the ball looped and dipped nicely, the ball turned and more importantly, bounced disconcertingly off the Chepauk track, and everything seemed well in his world.
The fluidity was evident from the first ball when a tossed-up delivery spun in and lobbed off Faf du Plessis’ waist.
Turn, tick. Flight, tick. Bounce, tick. Just one run came off the over, and after Suresh Raina ran over to pat him on the back, and Amit Mishra rushed from mid-on to high-five, the crowd gave him a generous applause as he walked towards them to take his fielding position. Next over, he broke through.
The slow pace and the loop caught the eye and Quinton de Kock’s unconvincing waft was swallowed in the first slip.
And he struck again in the final delivery of his fifth over. The batsman was David Miller and the dismissal brought images of JP Duminy getting out similarly to numerous off-spinners. The ball, delivered from round the stumps, landed around off and drifted in with the angle, but Miller’s bat was coming down for an offbreak and he was caught pretty plumb in front. Harbhajan soon finished his first spell that read 6-0-20-2 and had put India on top.
He returned later when South Africa’s hopes rested entirely on AB de Villiers who fought a lone hand with his 22nd ODI hundred— and his second of the series — and even then, against a classy batsman looking for runs, Harbhajan didn’t alter his thoughts. The ball still came out teasingly slowly — it was one of the days that Harbhajan can be really proud of his work.
Another man who would have been happy with his day’s work was Virat Kohli. There was a short phase early on when Kaguso Rabada tested him with a few bouncers and the ball bounded off weakly off attempted pull shots, and once off the glove dangerously close to the diving ‘keeper but once he got through it, Kohli began to flow, along with Ajinkya Rahane, who hit a fifty.
It helped that Chris Morris, the man who replaced Morne Morkel, who had a sore foot, chose to hit a full-length. He has played on this track for Chennai Super Kings but this pitch did have some bounce on it, and a short-of-length attack could have been the better choice.
Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane started to unfurl the drives and South Africa were left floundering a bit after Steyn and Rabada were seen off, and especially after Imran Tahir was hit out of the attack right away. With Morris, Aaron Phangiso, the left-arm tweaker, and Farhaan Berhadien, the dibbly-dobbler who had to be called upon in the wake of Tahir’s profligacy, the threat had evaporated into the humid afternoon air, and Kohli and Rahane prospered.
There was a lot of intent in Kohli’s knock — he pounced on Tahir and Phangiso, and didn’t show any signs of weakness when Rabada and Steyn returned. One shot stood out from the early part of his knock. In the 14th over, there was this imperious punch off a back-of-length delivery from Steyn that sent the ball plummeting through cover point. If, as the batsmen keep saying, one shot can ease the nerves and get them going, then that shot would have done the job for Kohli. He played shots all around the park, and his straight drives, as ever, made for a fascinating viewing experience. The bat doesn’t seem to come through straight at all; instead the bottom-hand powered drive comes off imitating a tennis forehand or from table-tennis, a sport that Kohli used to often play in the evenings of Ranji games. And the ball usually rushes past the startled bowler – yesterday it was Tahir who seemed a touch taken aback by the fury with which the ball flew past him. Kohli set it up and Harbhajan finished the job to leave us looking forward to the series finale in Mumbai on Sunday.