Written by a combination of two fellas who we’ll call HWA and Gangooly in the absence of any real names.
A new type of disappointment: Cricket-following Saffers today experienced a whole new sporting emotion as the Proteas produced an incredible survival effort but fell agonisingly short of a spectacular world record.
Heroes. Winners. Losers. Bottlers. Chokers. Today, amazingly, the Proteas were all of these at once. I have been watching cricket for 30 years and never have I experienced such a curious, indefinable emotion after a match. I guess that’s what makes cricket such an amazing game – a Test can still throw up a result like that which is desperately disappointing and yet an epic achievement all at once.
What a fascinating tussle this was. The Proteas were outplayed in this match by a surprisingly bold and brazen India, who arrived under a cloud of doubt. It’s the first tour since the retirement of their talisman of a quarter century and clearly the start of a new era for their batting unit. Most people (the locals anyway) doubted their temperament and technique against pace and the short ball on bouncy, quick South African wickets. Kohli answered immediately with an effortless 100 at a rapid rate while Rahane showed a calm head and disconcerting amounts of class at number six. The Protea bowlers had to work for their success, with the quicks having to really graft to find top gear and the spinners getting brought down to earth with a bump.
It was clear that the Indians were gravely underestimated. The sublime Steyn couldn’t find his usual menacing rhythm or swing and Tahir was reliving his Aussie nightmare from a year ago, bowling utter dross for the most part and getting smashed to all parts. With the on-song Morkel suffering an eye-watering ankle sprain in the outfield, it seemed that India could run away with the match but Kallis and Philander dug deep to break the Indian batting spine just in time. Still, SA had to chase 458 to win, a feat which has been achieved exactly zero times in history.
What followed on Day Five will remain one of the most brilliant and most confusing days of cricket I’ll ever witness. Petersen chopped on and Kallis got a stinker of an lbw decision in the first session to leave SA four down, bringing AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis together. The pair batted as well as you could ever hope to bat on a cracking, seaming fifth day pitch at the Wanderers. They were watchful and alert, playing positively and with intent. They defended vigilantly yet scored metronomically. They rode their luck but stayed in the zone, inching their way to potentially the greatest achievement of their Test careers and a record that would eclipse the 438 ODI effort in sheer scale, guts and ability.
Suddenly it was tea, and the pair had taken South Africa to 331/4 chasing 458. Another hour raced by and the partnership had reached the 200-mark. India looked rattled and South Africans fans started to believe. I started to believe that this utterly improbable chase was going to happen. But these things aren’t achieved with ease, and so it proved once the sublime De Villiers tiredly chopped a channel delivery from Sharma onto his stumps.
Duminy came and went, a sight all too familiar under pressure since his 2008 wonder-debut. Philander was up next and immediately he impressed once again, showing some deft skill off the back foot and finding the middle of the bat regularly. He took over the scoring role as Faf became the anchor at the other end. A few more smacks from Big Vern’s big bat and it was crunch time. We were going to do this! Hundreds of runs had become less than 20 for an astonishing win, unbelievably. Of course light was fading and overs were running out, but the required rate was still around four per over and SA still had the momentum.
Then the defining moment – Du Plessis drove firmly and straight to mid-off, but set off for the single. Rahane gathered and threw with deadly precision, not for the first time in the innings. Not even the most athletic of dives could save Faf. His awesome vigil of over six and a half hours had ended for 135, and now the fear was back. The Proteas needed another 16 with three overs left, but now the outlook had changed. The possibility of losing was big and looming right in front of them. Dhoni covered the boundaries fully and Shami bowled short and wide, inviting the desperate slog. It was all on a knife edge again, after five days of battle.
This is the moment where decisions were made. Philander and Steyn had to choose instantly – should they go for glory and risk exposing a crippled Morkel and the bunny Tahir to the tough batting conditions? Or hedge their bets, call a truce and bank the draw as a tangible reward for Faf and AB’s heroics? It is a horrible decision to have to make in an instant, because it is a complex one. It’s impossible to consider all the factors and make a calculated call there in the middle, amidst a baying crowd, in the heat of battle, to the backdrop of an all-time world record looming large. Yet it is a decision that will stay with them for the rest of their careers.
They chose to bank. Philander blocked out, even refusing singles. There were to be no further risks taken, much to gasps of disbelief from the Wanderers crowd and outrage from armchair supporters throughout the country. Steyn ironically smashed the final delivery for six, leaving the Proteas just eight runs short of the world record win and the strangest feelings emerged.
The team had achieved something very special, but at the same time passed up the opportunity to become cricketing gods. They did the sensible thing, but it felt like losing. We now still have the chance to win the series, but it feels like second prize. Maybe I will change my tune if we win in Durban (a venue where SA have lost our last four Tests) and the decision will be vindicated with a series win against our closest rivals for the top spot on the ICC rankings.