As an enthralling Test and the finale of an exhilarating three-match series enters it's final day, India is faced with one heck of a dilemma. Should the visitors throw caution to the wind, step on the gas, and charge towards overhauling the stiff target of 340 that their formidable opponents have set them? Or should they resign themselves to the inevitable fate of a draw, bide their time and play defensively towards that end?
What might have a bearing on their resultant decision will be that at the back of their minds lies the niggling desire to realise a historic dream - snatching their maiden Test series victory in the
Rainbow Nation. The prize seems almost irresistible. But if they are driven by that motive alone, they also stand to lose the series altogether. After all, this batting line-up has not proved to be the most reliant or reliable in the series thus far.
Sure, there have been the occasional acts of bravado and a smattering of defiant stands. But India's innings have been rife with frequent breaches and semi-collapses. One could whimsically hazard a hope that opening dasher Virender Sehwag, will get India off to a blistering start that will then provide his side the momentum to charge toward the victory score.
But in his trademark aggressive mode, he possesses the unsettling propensity of playing one impetuous shot too many. And we've seen in the present series where that has landed him... with a below-par average of 26.60.
The runs he has scored per each of his five innings is about half of his career average. Considering he has performed poorly vis-a-vie his calibre and stature, will he reverse his fortunes and go out of the series with a bang? A large chunk of India's fate today will depend on how forcefully and substantially he plays.
After all, he has given India the winning impetus with his frenetic strokeplay on earlier occasions. The most recent instance that comes to mind is when he blazed 83 off 68 balls to help India chase down England's target of 387 in the first Test against the visitors on their 2008-09 tour.
Another factor which may determine which way the match sways today is Dravid's impending contribution. He has been India's ultimate disappointment this tour with a meagre average of 17.60. And his strike rate of 36.77 isn't encouraging either in light of the situation that confronts India. If he gets stuck in his defensive rut where he doesn't even push for singles, then there is no way that India can meet the required 3.5 runs an over to win.
The equation is a simple yet daunting one - India need to make 340 runs in a maximum of 540 deliveries. But the Porteas new ball pair of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel have been bowling at economy rates of 3.05 and 3.13, respectively, while the off-spinner Paul Harris has been the most frugal at 2.78! Plus, India has been averaging a run-rate of 3.31 in the series so far, so they have a fair bit of speeding up to achieve.
If India is to give itself a realistic chance of chasing down 340, then the middle order will also have to come to the fore and stay solid. Tendulkar, Laxman, Pujara, Dhoni and if need be, Harbhajan will all have to string together meaty and quick-paced stands without leving Zaheer, Ishant and Sreesanth to add the finishing touches.
Tendulkar has been India's most consistent batsman in the tour with two memorable centuries under his belt, but he is prone to falling victim to that unforgiving law of averages which just might bring him down in this crunch situation. Laxman is riding on some good form and was nothing less than unlucky to be run-out in the previous innings, while after one-and-a-half match of experiencing the seaming conditions, it's high time Pujara got his act together.
This ongoing face-off at Newlands, Cape Town has been a compelling see-saw battle. The pendulum has swung to each side in faithful alternation. Kallis scored his 161 in the first innings while Sreesanth grabbed a five-wicket haul. Tendulkar replied with 146 while it was Steyn's turn to claim five scalps. Along came Kallis powerful riposte of 109 not out simultaneously with Bhajji's 7 wickets in South Africa's second innings. So, it is now India's tuirn again to wrest back the momentum of the match which might just see them through to victory.