Sunday, March 30, 2008

McKenzie ton rounds off tame draw

Neil McKenzie's patient 155, to complement his first-innings 94, warded off hopes of an Indian victory...

A patient unbeaten 155 from Neil McKenzie, and his solid 157-run partnership with Hashim Amla guided South Africa to safety on the final day at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, with India left to rue the missed chances that put paid to slim hopes of victory. Two catches were put down on a morning of frustration, and though Harbhajan Singh was rewarded for his tenacity and persistence after lunch, McKenzie stood firm to end any hopes of a decisive result.

Unbeaten on 88 at lunch, you might have expected him to be a little nervous after missing a century in the first innings. Instead, he cruised to three figures with two cuts for four off Anil Kumble. His fourth Test hundred took him just 184 balls, and vindicated the faith of the selectors who have left Herschelle Gibbs at home.

With the game heading nowhere, Kumble brought on VVS Laxman to bowl his offspinners, but Jacques Kallis put that into perspective by smashing the first ball past midwicket for four. Harbhajan was getting occasional steep bounce at one end, and Virender Sehwag was turning it sharply at the other, but there were only sporadic alarms for the two batsmen.

Harbhajan had beaten the bat several times with no luck at all, and was finally rewarded when RP Singh took a stunning catch at short square leg to send back Kallis for 19. It was his second failure of the match, and a bad omen for India that South Africa had managed so comfortably without a significant contribution from their batting talisman.

Harbhajan had Ashwell Prince caught at short leg soon after, the ball going off glove and then pad, but thoughts of a collapse had swiftly ended as McKenzie lofted a couple of big shots over the leg side. With Kumble off the field as well, the draw had become a certainty.

The final session was just a case of going through the motions, with Laxman and Sehwag bowling long spells. There was also the farcical sight of Harbhajan taking the second new ball, an indictment both of the pitch and India's pace bowlers. Apart from AB de Villiers being given out wrongly - the ball flew off the pad to short leg - there was nothing for the crowd to cheer about, and when play was called off with 14 overs left in the day, there were few murmurs of disagreement.

Hashim Amla's 81 was instrumental in blunting the Indian spin threat...

The fate of the match was as good as decided on a morning when Kumble was the only successful bowler. Unfortunately for India, it was almost lunch by then. He set up Amla with the googly before pitching a legbreak outside off stump. Amla poked hesitantly at it, and Rahul Dravid held on at slip. By then, Amla had already been reprieved twice, but his 81 was instrumental in blunting the Indian spin threat.

Kumble had opened the proceedings, but strangely took himself off after just an over, leaving Harbhajan to bowl in tandem with Sreesanth. The two batsmen were cagey early on, but then Amla started to assert himself. Harbhajan was cut for four, and when Sreesanth's attempted yorker became a full toss, he clipped it through midwicket to reach 50.

In truth, he shouldn't have gone much further. When on 55, a miscued sweep off Harbhajan went airborne, but Sreesanth made a real hash of the chance running in from the deep. As the ball fell into space to his left, Harbhajan looked incensed and clearly hadn't forgotten the gaffe overs later when he appeared to gesture after making a superb stop himself.

Soon after, Kumble and RP took over, with India sticking to the spin-pace combination. Amla produced a terrific on-drive off RP and then saw the bowler fail to hold on to a return catch when the ball was bunted back at him. On 72 at the time, he was living a charmed life, and a magnificent cover drive off Kumble raised visions of a second century in the match. Kumble though had other ideas.

McKenzie was less aggressive in the morning, and survived a vociferous appeal from Kumble just before the interval, but by then he had eased quietly into the 80s. Circumspection was the name of the game, but that soon gave way to celebration, and satisfaction at a job very well done. A match that began with bat dominating ball ended the same way, with South Africa having more cause for satisfaction after a sterling bowling display on the penultimate day.

India v South Africa, 1st Test, Chennai, 5th day