There were two winners!

The first Test between India and South Africa, that concluded as a draw in Johannesburg on a manic Sunday, will be forever remembered as a classic. K.C. Vijaya Kumar reports.

If a draw could threaten nails and nerves, turn palms sweaty and throats dry, this was it. The first Test between India and South Africa, that concluded in Johannesburg’s boisterous Wanderers Stadium on a manic Sunday (Dec. 22), will be forever remembered as a classic.

This was a contest that destroyed all pre-match prophecies. Chasing 458 in the fourth innings, South Africa ended up with 450 for seven.

It was a Test that shimmered with Indian dominance for four days before the South Africans dealt in aces on the final day to tear the script and offer a fresh one, thanks to the 205-run fifth-wicket partnership between AB de Villiers (103) and Faf du Plessis (134).

The dismissals of the two in the last session dragged the game back to its sense of balance and proportion and it all trickled down to 16 from three overs, which became 16 from two as Mohammad Shami and Zaheer Khan bowled two maidens. In the last over that Shami bowled, Dale Steyn froze before striking a six off the last ball and the two teams walked away winners. May be not in the pure ‘win-loss’ sense but in a philosophical way for the manner in which they tested each other’s fortunes and largely held their heads.

“This team never backs off,” said Virat Kohli, the ‘Man of the Match.’ Kohli himself exemplified those words with a fine 119 that helped India finish its first innings at 280, a score that could have been much more but for the South African pace-attack striking back on the second day morning.

However, it was just a matter of time before the Indian fast bowlers led by Zaheer, who was on a fulfilling comeback trail (he got his 300th Test wicket in the game), flipped pressure back onto the Proteas. In the commentary box, acclaimed speedsters like Shaun Pollock were praising the tight line and length that the Indian seamers bowled and especially the manner in which they attacked the stumps. The result was that South Africa was bowled out for 244 with Zaheer and Ishant Sharma grabbing four wickets each while host-skipper Graeme Smith (68) and Vernon Philander (59) eked out the runs.

Having gained a 36-run first innings lead, India extended that miniscule advantage into Herculean proportions in its second innings with Cheteshwar Pujara (153) and Kohli (96) adding 222-runs for the third-wicket. It also helped that Murali Vijay (39) had done the hard work of staving off the new-ball threat from Dale Steyn and Philander.

Pujara, after a meagre tour of South Africa in 2010-11, proved that he had learnt his lessons and did not succumb to the leg-trap that the Proteas tried for a while, bowling bouncers and hoping for a never-in-control-hook ballooning to either short-leg, fine-leg or square-leg. He was harsh on an erratic Imran Tahir as the leg-spinner provided easy pickings for the hungry Indians. Pujara was equally adept against the speedsters, drilling through the off-side as Philander, the most impressive among the host bowlers, and the rest faced the heat of his blade.

The Saurashtra youngster’s partner, Kohli, with whom Pujara shares a warm rapport, also played his part and another century in the same game seemed as easy as consuming aloo-chaat in Delhi’s Connaught Place. But Kohli fell to JP Duminy while Jacques Kallis dismissed Pujara. Both batsmen fell on the cut but they had done enough for their team to nurse hopes of ambushing the South Africans with a 400-plus chase. India posted 421 in its second innings and South Africa was set a steep target.

It was meant to go one way — an emphatic Indian triumph. But as Kohli pointed out, South Africa is the ‘number one team’ and so surprises were in store. The host batsmen played their part with the exception of Hashim Amla, who was surprised by a Shami bouncer that kept low and struck the stumps, and JP Duminy, who inner-edged Shami onto his stumps and the match was set-up nicely for a gripping climax even if it was for a draw.

The duo of du Plessis and de Villiers threatened to mount the greatest pursuit in cricketing history but the unexplained intricacies of a fifth-day chase, as vague as trying to decipher the Bermuda Triangle, came into vogue.

They prospered, negating all that the Indian seamers could throw up and kept spinner R. Ashwin at bay. But in the end, cricket trumped everything and walked away the winner even if dull statistical tomes will record the game as just another draw!

* * * THE SCORES

First Test, Johannesburg, December 18-22, 2013. Match drawn.

India — 1st innings: M. Vijay c de Villiers b Morkel 6; S. Dhawan c Tahir b Steyn 13; C. Pujara (run out) 25; V. Kohli c Duminy b Kallis 119; Rohit Sharma c de Villiers b Philander 14; A. Rahane c de Villiers b Philander 47; M. S. Dhoni c de Villiers b Morkel 19; R. Ashwin (not out) 11; Zaheer Khan lbw b Philander 0; Ishant Sharma b Philander 0; M. Shami b Morkel 0; Extras (b-4, lb-6, w-14, nb-2) 26. Total: 280.

Fall of wickets: 1-17, 2-24, 3-113, 4-151, 5-219, 6-264, 7-264, 8-264, 9-278.

South Africa bowling: Steyn 26-7-61-1; Philander 27-6-61-4; Morkel 23-12-34-3; Kallis 14-4-37-1; Tahir 8-0-47-0; Duminy 5-0-30-0.

South Africa — 1st innings: G. Smith lbw b Zaheer 68; A. Petersen lbw b Ishant 21; H. Amla b Ishant 36; J. Kallis lbw b Ishant 0; AB de Villiers lbw b Shami 13; JP Duminy c Vijay b Shami 2; Faf du Plessis c Dhoni b Zaheer 20; V. Philander c Ashwin b Zaheer 59; D. Steyn c Rohit b Ishant 10; M. Morkel b Zaheer 7; I. Tahir (not out) 0; Extras (lb-4, w-1, nb-3) 8. Total: 244.

Fall of wickets: 1-37, 2-130, 3-130, 4-130, 5-145, 6-146, 7-226, 8-237, 9-239.

India bowling: Zaheer 26.3-6-88-4; Shami 18-3-48-2; Ishant 25-5-79-4; Ashwin 6-0-25-0.

India — 2nd innings: S. Dhawan c Kallis b Philander 15; M. Vijay c de Villiers b Kallis 39; C. Pujara c de Villiers b Kallis 153; V. Kohli c de Villiers b Duminy 96; Rohit Sharma b Kallis 6; A. Rahane c Smith b Duminy 15; M. S. Dhoni c (sub) b Philander 29; R. Ashwin c du Plessis b Philander 7; Zaheer Khan (not out) 29; Ishant Sharma lbw b Tahir 4; M. Shami b Tahir 4; Extras (b-9, lb-7, w-8) 24. Total: 421.

Fall of wickets: 1-23, 2-93, 3-315, 4-325, 5-327, 6-358, 7-369, 8-384, 9-405.

South Africa bowling: Steyn 30-5-104-0; Philander 28-10-68-3; Morkel 2-1-4-0; Kallis 20-5-68-3; Tahir 15.4-1-69-2; de Villiers 1-0-5-0; Duminy 24-0-87-2.

South Africa — 2nd innings: A. Petersen b Shami 76; G. Smith (run out) 44; H. Amla b Shami 4; Faf du Plessis (run out) 134; J. Kallis lbw b Zaheer 34; AB de Villiers b Ishant 103; JP Duminy b Shami 5; V. Philander (not out) 25; D. Steyn (not out) 6; Extras (b-2, lb-7, w-8, nb-2) 19. Total (for seven wkts.): 450.

Fall of wickets: 1-108, 2-118, 3-143, 4-197, 5-402, 6-407, 7-442.

India bowling: Zaheer 34-1-135-1; Ishant 29-4-91-1; Shami 28-5-107-3; Ashwin 36-5-83-0; Vijay 1-0-3-0; Dhoni 2-0-4-0; Kohli 6-0-18-0.