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JOHANNESBURG: A muddled head, of the kind that results from the endless tortuosity of close-run games, is not the most ideal quality to bring to writing a match report. And when the game in question is the drawn first Test between India and South Africa the job is all the more difficult. On Sunday, for almost the entirety of 90 overs, not one sane guess could be hazarded on the outcome. South Africa began the morning 320 adrift, two wickets down, depleted in morale and burdened by history, and then turned it all around through a magnificent partnership for 205 runs between Faf du Plessis (134) and AB de Villiers (103). The pair took their team to within 56 runs of the target. But just when we thought the writing was on the wall, South Africa's familiar propensity to asphyxiate when the going is good came to the fore.
With 56 needed in 13 overs, De Villiers played on to Ishant Sharma, for South Africa’s fifth wicket. Then it was JP Duminy’s turn to chop Mohammad Shami on to his stumps. Six down and the all-too-familiar choke-routine was surfacing alarmingly for the hosts. But du Plessis was still there, just like he had been at Adelaide last year, and with him was Vernon Philander, who had scored a vital half-century in the first innings. The two scorched an array of boundaries and brought the requirement down to a mere 16 runs from 20 balls. It should have been pretty straightforward from here on. It was not.
Rahane's direct hit
Ajinkya Rahane, who had run-out Graeme Smith with a direct hit from mid-off in the first essay, struck again from precisely that position. Only this time the victim was a diving du Plessis. The run-out changed South Africa’s approach from going after victory to settling for a draw, a result they’d have gladly accepted in the morning when they lost Alviro Petersen (76) and Jacques Kallis (34) and were left with almost 70 overs to survive.
Eventually, in a way nobody would have imagined, the host’s fast bowlers proved to be the ultimate thorn in India’s side. Philander and Dale Steyn survived the fateful three-odd overs, aided by a most inexplicable field set by Dhoni: ultra-defensive, no slips, no gully, just precautionary trawlers on the fence to ensure that the batting pair were deprived of any hits to the boundary. Going by the build up to the Tour, even India will be alright with a drawn match, a game that they dominated thoroughly before an other-worldly show by de Villiers and du Plessis snatched back the initiative.
The morning began with survival paramount on South African minds. Petersen had batted methodically for over a session-and-a-half on Saturday. On the crucial final morning, however, he fell without adding to his overnight 76, bowled by Shami off the inside edge. Jacques Kallis was brilliant in scoring 34 with six exquisitely-timed boundaries, most of them drives through cover. He was softened somewhat by
Zaheer bouncer that reared up and took off from the shoulder of his bat, only to fall in no man’s land beyond the slips.
The old man looked like he wanted to win it alone for South Africa before he was done in by a rank poor umpiring decision, one that made Zaheer the fourth India to join the 300 Test-wickets club when a low inswinger thudded into Kallis' pads off a thick inside edge.
South Africa were 236/4 at lunch, needing 222 more with du Plessis and de Villiers looking good. Once India took the second new ball after resumption, both the batsmen hit their straps. De Villiers spanked Zaheer for boundaries and then pulled Shami viciously to reach his 34th half-century.
Du Plessis had already reached his mini personal landmark, and a spate of hits to the vacant third man region, and with India’s lead now less than 200, compelled Dhoni to remove the close-in ring and redistribute his men to the deep. Du Plessis on 82 received a ‘life’ when Kohli missed running him out with a direct hit from cover. The pair added 95 without any damage in the middle session and with the target nearing, South Africa were fast becoming favourites.
A flick off Zaheer after tea brough du Plessis his third Test century. De Villiers soon joined him on three figures and the ask now stood at 69 in the 15 overs. It was almost like an ODI or a T20, only it had reached such a thrilling climax after more than 400 overs of slipping and sliding. Who'd have thought a draw could offer so much by way of entertainment. Who'd have thought India could show such steel overseas? Who'd have thought South Africa could save the match? The second Test begins after Christmas. You can start salivating already.
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