The final day will live on fondly in the memory, alongside the legendary “438-game” against Australia, as South Africa mounted the most extraordinary rearguard action in the history of Test cricket. To finish on 450 for seven on the final day, just eight runs short of the highest ever successful fourth-innings chase, was incredible.
Just saving the game was miraculous; winning it as well would have been a bit like climbing Mt Everest and then flapping one’s arms and flying to the moon!
What won’t be remembered with any pleasure, however, was the reaction of those fans who took umbrage at South Africa closing up shop in the last three overs to avoid defeat.
Having already immortalised himself with his seven-and-three-quarter hour century on debut to save the Adelaide Test against Australia 13 months ago, Faf du Plessis added to his legend by batting for six-and-a-half hours to save the Wanderers Test on a pitch that forced the batsmen to contend with plenty of rearing, dangerous deliveries.
And with De Villiers adding an immaculately styled century of his own, it was South Africa that claimed all the moral victories on the final day.
Efforts by India to suggest they were the only team pushing for victory in the closing moments of the first Test are as wide of the mark as the deliveries well outside off stump or bouncers they bowled at the death. If they were really hunting wickets, they would have bowled way more at the stumps and the dangerous Mohammad Shami would have featured much more than he did.
Du Plessis and De Villiers batted like superheroes and Test cricket has always had a place in its folklore for teams who salvage a draw like rescuing a damsel in distress; the villain does not always have to be vanquished right there and then.
With only Morne Morkel, who could barely stand much less run between wickets because of his twisted ankle, and Imran Tahir left to bat, the loss of one more wicket by South Africa would have seriously exposed them to the risk of India snatching victory at the death and why would they want to take that chance and waste the epic effort that had already been put in?
South Africa had already made a massive statement by standing up to the pressure of having to bat for four-and-a-half sessions on a seaming pitch with variable bounce and it is India who now have the mountain to climb as they pick themselves up for the Durban Test starting on Thursday.
“I do understand the emotions, but the context is this was an unbelievable Test and from day two we were behind and not many people gave us a chance of saving the game today. Faf and AB played two of the greatest Test innings of recent times and I hope people can respect the effort they put in.
“We fought hard and had enough skill to get something out of this Test and people mustn’t lose sight of what an incredible effort it was,” captain Graeme Smith said.
“India will be mentally drained and I’ll be surprised if MS Dhoni doesn’t feel his bowlers should have won him the game. With 136 overs, as a captain you have to believe that your bowling attack can do the job. It’s a short turnaround now until the next Test and they have lots to think about,” Smith said.
There are other reasons for South Africa to be upbeat: They managed to stay in the game despite losing a key strike bowler for the vast majority of the second innings; and Alviro Petersen, Jacques Kallis and Du Plessis answered all the questions about their form to allow the home side to choose a settled batting line-up for the deciding Test.
Petersen scored a determined 76 as he and Graeme Smith posted a century opening stand to set the fourth innings off on a sturdy start, while Kallis looked in top-class touch after a string of failures.
It took a poor lbw decision – after a big inside-edge – by Rod Tucker to remove a rampant Kallis for 34 and even though Du Plessis and De Villiers took South Africa through to lunch on 236 for four, still needing 222 runs in 61 overs, there were only a handful of people who thought a home victory was still on.
“Our first goal was to get through the new ball after lunch and once that was done, AB and I started to get some momentum after tea. We needed 127 and we started getting four an over quite easily. But even then the plan was just to bat normally until the last 10 overs.
“But AB got out at a crucial stage and once JP Duminy was dismissed it was very important for me to stay in. It was really difficult for new batsmen to come in and score six or seven an over, so we’re very happy with the result,” Du Plessis explained.
Thanks to the machinations of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, this is just a two-match series and the desperation of both teams not to lose the opening encounter was obvious.
The highly unlikely reward of actually winning the Test would have required taking risks which were unacceptably high for the Proteas, considering the tricky pitch and what batting reserves they had.
The fact of the matter is that South Africa pulled off a miraculous draw; the criticism – and even booing – directed at them for not winning the match says more about the totally unrealistic expectations of their “fans” than it does of a team that has once again shown why they are number one in the world, and the toughest side to beat in the game. DM
Photo: South Africa’s Faf du Plessis celebrates his century during the final day of their cricket test match against India in Johannesburg, December 22, 2013. (REUTERS/Ihsaan Haffejee)
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