Pulse-pounding casino Jo'burg

Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara... a double century stand in the second innings.-AP

It was that kind of day, a riveting one in which cricket gladdened hearts with its ability to defy preconceived notions and its infinite strength to live up to its cliched label — a game of glorious uncertainties, writes K.C. Vijaya Kumar.

Sunday dawned in Johannesburg with a frisson of excitement. A Test was in the balance, India could defeat South Africa. Yes, you heard that right! A young Indian team could spring a surprise. There was also the possibility of a draw, a remote one at that. And maybe, South Africa could win.

Before the first Test’s concluding day could begin, attention was diverted to Graeme Swann’s retirement-announcement from Australia. The way great careers come to an abrupt end at times, was discussed in the press box at the Wanderers Stadium but once play commenced, all distractions were wiped out.

It was that kind of day, a riveting one in which cricket gladdened hearts with its ability to defy preconceived notions and its infinite strength to live up to its cliched label — a game of glorious uncertainties. Chasing 458, South Africa finished with 450 for seven! But by the time that sense of finality was achieved, the contest had made innumerable twists and turns like a gamble in a Las Vegas casino. It was truly nerve-shredding and not one for those with cardiac problems.

It was one of the finest adventures you could ever see on 22-yards and remember, we are talking about a draw which surprisingly was in the mode of an ‘edge-of-the-seat’ thriller. The match’s finale would be one that fans and connoisseurs will store in their hearts and minds. To be recalled with that question: “Where were you when India and South Africa played out that sensational draw..?”

Surely, ‘nail-biting’, ‘sensational’ and other attributes have never cloaked draws while the preferred adjectives were ‘dull’, ‘dreary’ and ‘boring.’ Yes, it was a draw indeed but the manner in which that climax was arrived at would leave even the most ardent cricket-lovers searching for a similar experience just for the sake of comparison but they would largely end up with nothing.

Before we turn our attention to the principal cast that played a pivotal role in shaping a game that went beyond the wildest imagination, it would be prudent to also recall that India had played a few matches in which the dead-lock verdict was dipped in excitement and pathos.

Remember the 1986 Tied Test between India and Australia at Chennai’s (Madras then) M. A. Chidambaram Stadium when Greg Matthews trapped Maninder Singh lbw in front of a sporting crowd? How about Mumbai 2011? At the Wankhede Stadium, chasing 243 in the fourth innings against a tough West Indian outfit, India finished with 242 for nine with R. Ashwin being run-out off the final ball while going for the winning run! The scores were level but since India had a wicket in hand, it wasn’t a tie but a draw, a tense one at that.

Perhaps M. S. Dhoni’s men have a propensity for the stalemates that quiver with tautness and tension. And yes the first Test in Johannesburg was a classic to be stowed away and recalled when cricket’s great tussles are listed. It was a face-off in which the willow game won while the Indians and the Proteas were stunned by the manner in which their fortunes and fates weaved a tale that they will tell their grand-children when they have a stoop and arthritis gnaws away at their limbs while their memories remain fresh.

Before we delve into the intangibles like destiny let us accept that it was a match that was chiselled by a few key players. Top of the charts would be Virat Kohli. India’s new number four, who stepped into Sachin Tendulkar’s enormous shoes, scored 119 and 96. Both efforts had diverse effects. If the first knock cemented the cracks inflicted by Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, the second strike in tandem with Cheteshwar Pujara’s 153, advanced India’s position to an almost invincible one. Pujara too played his role well. After being run-out in the first innings, Pujara shrugged off the disappointment and proved that he is at home in all venues, be it Rajkot’s dust bowl or Johannesburg’s green expanse.

Equally stunning was the wares plied by India’s pace attack. Led by an astute Zaheer Khan, who grabbed his 300th Test wicket (Jacques Kallis), the Indian seamers sparkled in the South African first innings as a 36-run lead was snapped up. Zaheer’s disciples, Ishant Sharma and Mohammad Shami, tested the host batsmen and all three bowled lines that attacked the stumps, a lesson that South African bowling coach Allan Donald admitted had to be learnt by his wards!

Just like India’s young batsmen and its pace bowling trio, A.B. de Villiers (103) and Faf du Plessis (134) too had a tremendous impact on the Test. Ahead of the fifth day, South Africa’s assistant coach Adrian Birrell said: “We are looking for a draw but if we have wickets in hand and score at the rate we do, we might be closer to winning but let us not look too far ahead!” Those words almost proved prophetic.

Joining forces at 197 for four, the centurions stayed together for more than 60 overs and added 205 runs! They quelled everything that the Indians tried especially Zaheer, who gave everything from his 13-year old bag of international experience. And truth be told, it was their dismissals that hurtled the game towards its almost ODI-like finish though it ended in a draw.

And as cliched as this sounds, last but not the least, it is the small things that make a difference. This Test was no exception to that rule.

The runs that Zaheer biffed as a tail-ender, the manner in which Murali Vijay (39) blunted the new ball, Morkel’s injury that eased a bit of pressure on the Indian batsmen and Ajinkya Rahane’s unerring arm that left Graeme Smith and du Plessis stranded, all played a part. It was that kind of Test where every bit of action conspired to be part of a classic laced with irony — a draw!