The second Test between South Africa and India is very evenly poised at the end of the 3rd day's play. One man has made the difference. On a pitch where 33 batsmen have gotten out so far, only one man has made more than 37 runs in an inning. The incredible thing is that VVS Laxman has done it twice, top-scoring for the Indians in both innings.
When he came to bat Kepler Wessels noted on-air that Laxman has too many 50's in comparison to 100's (48 to just 16) and wondered why it was so. Many times over the course of the next day he had a chance to figure it out but he never did so. This inning was a classic demonstration of why. Batting at #5 or #6 for most of his career, Laxman has not had the luxury of having partners stick with him too many times. Far too often, he has had to play with the tail and forced to watch as the wickets fell and that stat-padding 100 was too far away to reach. Today, when the 5th wicket (Cheteshwar Pujara) fell, Laxman was batting on 23, the team score was 93 (effectively 167 for 5).
By the time Laxman was the last man out, the lead had increased by a further 135 runs of which VVS himself contributed 73. The ball that he got out on was there to be hit and on a luckier day would have taken a thicker edge and sailed over the slips for a four. However, I will take the 96. There were at least four occasions during the inning when he could have either played on or popped a catch off a leading edge and did not do so, so those cancel out this miss.
Whether this 96 will be immortalized like GR Viswanath's heroic 97* will be known very soon. Either way, when Laxman pushed the lead beyond 300 (and yes, CricInfo's headline: "Laxman sets South Africa 303 to win" was correct) I could not help feeling than another 50-75 runs were needed. But it was not to be.
The 4th day will start with the SAffers needing 190-odd and the Indians 7 wickets. Based on what I have seen so far, I expect India to pull it off. The pitch has enough in it that no batsman looks completely set even after batting a long time. While the commentators are harping on Harbhajan Singh as the key guy, for my money it is Sreesanth. Seriously.
No one releases the ball more perfectly than Sreesanth does. I have never seen a ball leave a bowler's hand with a more perfect seam position and absolutely no wobble as it does when Sreesanth lets go. Too bad that he has the temperament of a petulant rock star. If he played in the NFL he'd definitely be a wide receiver, such are his antics. He managed to get under Graeme Smith's skin with some of his shenanigans but I wish, for one day at least, that he focuses on the ball, the pitch, and not how he looks on TV.
If I was the captain, this would be my strategy for the 4th day: Bowl Bhajji from one end and rotate the seamers (ZAK, Sreesanth, and Isant, in that order) from the other. Keep an in-out field - 5 attacking fielders inside but a third man, and a sweeper on the off and two guys deep on the on. And be patient. The batsmen will get out, the pressure will get to them. Trust me.
P.S. Ishant Sharma, can you move your bowling mark back by about 6 inches such that your front foot lands inside the crease and not on it? I swear that if you get another batsman out off a no-ball, I will catch the next flight to South Africa, shave half the hair off your head, and catch the next flight back. Runs are precious, Laxman fought and fought to get you most of those, don't go and gift the SAffers some free ones with your irresponsible no-balls.