Kanpur, Apr.12 : India gained a slender 23 run lead over South Africa on the second day of the third Test being played at the Green Park Stadium in Kanpur, thanks to a gritty yet stylish knock of 87 by former captain Saurav Ganguly and a brilliant half-century by V.V.S.Laxman.
In one of the most gripping Tests in recent memory, little separated the two competing teams, as the pitch continued to crumble, suggesting that trouble could be in store for India, as it has to bat last.
Nevertheless, for the spectators, it was another enthralling day of play, with punch following counter-punch, as the match seesawed between the Indian and South African teams. It has all the makings of a classic, and the team showing greater steel would ensure a result in its favour.
For the record, in reply to South Africa's 265, India scoredd 288 for nine at the close of the second day's play. S. Sreesanth with nine (two boundaries) and Ishant Sharma with three were at the crease.
For the South Africans, the stand-out bowlers were Dale Steyn with three wickets for 60, Morne Morkel with three for 57 and Paul Harris with two for 89. Makaya Ntini snared a wicket for 41 runs.
It was a day when South Africa struck vital blows, but this did not prevent India from staying afloat through two fighting partnerships, a 78-run stand between Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman and a 42-run stand between Saurav Ganguly and Yuvraj Singh on a crumbling surface with plenty of venom. Ganguly and Dhoni added 60 runs for the seventh wicket.
It was a fizzer of a pitch, and spectators were left gasping with excitement as the duel between the two sides unfolded on Saturday. The nature of the surface and quality of attack made life difficult for the Indian batsmen. Not only did they need to draw on their technical expertise but also exhibited the temperament to forget about what went before.
Dravid and Laxman played contrasting hands. The duo have conjured up some miracle stands on good batting pitches in the past but they had an entirely different challenge here. The cracks were widening with every over and puffs of dust only made batting much harder. Dravid's ability to play late came in handy - a couple of full deliveries were squirted to the third man region for four - and he often took his bottom hand off the bat-handle to not allow for a meaty edge.
His 106-ball resistance was finally ended with a lethal ball - one that took off from a good length, clattered the glove and ballooned to gully. So furious was the ball from Morkel that Dravid seemed to have injured his fingers and even lost hold of the bat in the last moment.
Laxman was more fluent. He struck the fast bowlers crisply - the highlight being the three consecutive fours off Morne Morkel in the 15th over. The third was a thick edge that flew between second and third slip but the first two were glorious shots through cover and midwicket. The first allowed the viewers to see the full face of the bat while the second was a most delectable whip off his pads.
Laxman had a life on 43, when an edge off Paul Harris eluded Jacques Kallis' grasp at first slip, and went on to make the third half-century of the match. He fell soon after, though, when a ripper from Morkel swung in and straightened, knocking back his off stump.
South Africa's lethal fast bowlers jousted with India's tenacious batting line-up, but none of them could get past Ganguly, who chose the right moment to produce an unforgettable innings.
He walked in a few moments after Morne Morkel had unleashed a most venomous jaffa, one that injured Rahul Dravid before dismissing him. A couple of overs later he watched Morkel nip out Laxman with one that swung in and straightened. This was an uphill task against a potent bowling attack on a spiteful pitch. So composed was Ganguly's response, so assured his shot-selection, that it was difficult to believe that he was batting on the same surface.
He cover-drove with assurance and handled - or manhandled - Paul Harris, the left-arm spinner, with a bit of contempt. Harris tried to keep the runs down in between bowling grenades but Ganguly's 39 deliveries against him saw a run-a-ball scoring rate. Makhaya Ntini's reverse-swing briefly troubled him but the rapacious pull that he uncorked, towards the end of the day, had the bowler looking on in disbelief.
The nine fours and a six, a meaty loft over long-off when he danced down the track to Harris, drew the gasps but it was his scampered singles that frustrated the fielders more.
He shared two vital partnerships. Yuvraj Singh's in-your-face approach put off the bowlers for a while - Dale Steyn was riled up enough to enter into a verbal duel - before Mahendra Singh Dhoni filled the breach. Both sized up the match situation early - hurrying singles and putting away the boundary-balls - but both were responsible for their dismissals - Yuvraj sweeping in the air and Dhoni rushing down the track as if in a last over of an ODI.