There was no triumph. There was no loss. In the end, it was a draw. But if ever a stalemate was as gripping as this, cricket historians are still searching for it.
India and South Africa found their wavering fortunes enmeshed equally, and out of that was born a classic Test at the Wanderers Stadium here on a rousing Sunday.
Chasing 458, South Africa finished with 450 for seven in its second innings. Dale Steyn’s last-ball six off Mohammad Shami was the final pulsating bit of a match that is one for the ages.
If India was ahead in the morning session, South Africa turned it around post-lunch as centurions Faf du Plessis (134) and A.B. de Villiers (103) promised a miracle through their 205-run fifth-wicket partnership.
In the last session, India found its jail-break moment through Ishant Sharma when de Villiers chopped onto his stumps in the 124th over.
Once de Villiers departed and Shami castled J.P. Duminy, all possible results were still on the cards.
There were more twists, though, as Ajinkya Rahane’s throw left du Plessis stranded, Shami and Zaheer Khan bowled maiden overs and it all boiled down to 16 from the last six deliveries: those runs for South Africa and the three wickets that India needed, proved equally tough, and a conclusion that even the best pen-pushers can only dream of, was ushered in.
The players soon trooped off, tired but proud that they had competed in a game that will be savoured forever.
Earlier, de Villiers was a picture of poise and elegance as he leant into Ishant’s delivery and drove it with élan. In contrast, du Plessis stayed rooted, offering stability in an alliance that threatened to demolish the Indian dreams.
Much rested on the new-ball post lunch but once that tipping point was reached, the South Africans found rapid runs. de Villiers flicked Zaheer twice in succession, to fine-leg and square-leg while du Plessis reached his fifty, pulling Shami’s short-pitched delivery.
On Saturday, de Villiers had tweeted: ‘Another tough day for us. Wont give up the fight.’ True to his words, he and du Plessis blunted whatever challenge the Indians raised.
Balls were defended and scoring opportunities were taken up with alacrity, and luck too favoured them as Rahane’s throw missed the stumps when du Plessis had given up, and balls that tended to zip off a wearing pitch, took the leading edge and flew into no-danger zones.
If the Indians were waiting for the big-kill, it proved to be a long one.
At tea, South Africa was on 331 for four, still needing 127 and anything was possible.
Earlier, commencing its chase at 138 for two in the morning, South Africa was jolted in the day’s fifth over as Shami got one to nip back close to the stumps, and Alviro Petersen, playing a half-measure shot, deflected the ball onto his stumps.
The host, though, was in no mood to fold, with du Plessis staying on and Jacques Kallis dishing out a garland of cover-drives — five of them — against Zaheer and Shami.
Just as the crowd was warming up with its chorus of ‘Kallis, Kallis’, the batsman shaped for an on-drive off Zaheer and managed an inner-edge onto his pads. The Indians’ appeal was upheld, and Zaheer had got his 300th wicket in Tests.
In the lead-up to lunch, du Plessis and de Villiers survived a few appeals for lbw, and the match was set up for a gripping afternoon session: South Africa needing 222 runs and the Indians six wickets.
What happened later was the stuff of dreams. This was a draw in which cricket triumphed.