There was grand drama at Eden Gardens on Thursday.
The second Test, which had shaped into a captivating contest thanks to a fine cricket wicket that didn't disintegrate and a weather-shortened fourth day, had a most remarkable final day. It developed bit by engaging bit towards a tense, grandstand finish.
Hashim Amla's magnificent defensive innings (123 not out), an effort spanning eight hours and nineteen minutes, resisted India's thrust towards a series-levelling victory. But just as it seemed as if he would secure for South Africa a precious series win in India, Harbhajan Singh kept his date with destiny.
Harbhajan, who had been criticised in the days leading up to the Test for not doing enough as India's lead spinner, was the most consistent threat on Thursday. With Zaheer Khan unable to bowl after suffering a muscle strain on the fourth day, it was to Harbhajan that M.S. Dhoni most often turned. And the off-spinner justified his captain's faith in him, ending a nerve-wracking contest with his fifth wicket.
India might have left it late — a minimum of nine deliveries remained — but to its credit it got the job done. The innings-and-57-run win didn't merely square the series; it ensured India retained its No. 1 ranking, a position South Africa could have usurped with a series win.
The fifth day was a fitting end to what has been a strangely even series between the world's two best Test sides. South Africa dominated India in the first Test in Nagpur. India dictated terms here, and might conceivably have settled the match earlier if the weather hadn't intervened.
Instead, the patrons at Eden Gardens — a remarkably sporting bunch that felt Amla's pain as he walked off the field, beard fluttering gently in the breeze — were treated to a rewarding day's cricket.
India tried this and that for nearly two hours on Thursday morning before taking a wicket. Dhoni, who knew he had to manage the workload of four bowlers among three, chose to give each short spells. But this didn't seem to let the bowlers settle.
In complete control
Amla was near flawless in the extended first session. Barring a Harbhajan top-spinner that he edged for three and an Ishant lifter that smashed his elbow, Amla had matters under control. His concentration was otherworldly, his footwork precise. To the spinners, he often moved deep into his crease, allowing the ball to expend everything the bowler had put on it before he met it. When he sprang forward, he was almost always to the pitch of the delivery, ready to smother its spin.
Ashwell Prince was far less convincing than his partner, but he kept India's bowlers out till late into the morning session. Eventually, Harbhajan deceived the left-hander in the air with a flighted off-break from over the wicket. Prince pushed tentatively against the break, and the ball ballooned to mid-off.
Amit Mishra has a habit of producing great deliveries to very good batsmen, and a googly completely fooled A.B. de Villiers. The batsman played for the leg-break, his bat outside the delivery's line, and found to his consternation that the ball broke in just enough to find him in front of his stumps.
In the 10 overs leading to lunch, India had taken two wickets for seven runs.
Harbhajan struck twice after lunch. J.P. Duminy, who's had a horror tour mainly because of Harbhajan, fell again to the off-spinner. Where the delivery that got Prince was about five kmph slower than Harbhajan's average speed, the one that found Duminy leg-before was five kmph faster. When Harbhajan dismissed Steyn leg-before, the end appeared nigh.
But India still couldn't find a way past Amla (Harbhajan's leg-before appeal when Amla was on 73 had merit; it was the closest India got to ending the batsman's stay on Thursday).
Wayne Parnell settled and started to look comfortable, and it wasn't until the second new ball was taken, in the 91st over, that the next chance came. But Suresh Raina, on as a substitute at gully, shelled the chance Ishant created.
In all, India had to wait 102 minutes after the fall of the seventh wicket for its next. Ishant, who was ordinary in the middle session, accounted for Parnell (caught at mid-on) and Paul Harris (caught at third slip) after tea.
Amla and Morne Morkel denied India for 76 minutes and 125 deliveries, the former looking, if possible, increasingly secure, the latter doing enough to get by.
Morkel had several near misses -- each time the air thickened with tension. Finally, Harbhajan trapped the gangling Morkel in front of his stumps, and took off with his mates in pursuit.
Sachin Tendulkar commiserated with the unconquered Amla before joining in.
South Africa 1st Innings: 296
India 1st Innings: 643 for six declared
South Africa 2nd Innings (overnight 115 for three) Graeme Smith lbw b Mishra 20, Alviro Petersen c Badrinath b Harbhajan 21, Hashim Amla not out 127, Jacques Kallis c Dhoni b Mishra 20, Ashwell Prince c Sharma b Harbhajan 23, AB de Villiers lbw b Mishra 3, Jean-Paul Duminy lbw b Harbhajan 6, Dale Steyn lbw b Harbhajan 1, Wayne Parnell c Harbhajan b Sharma 22, Paul Harris c sub Karthik b Sharma 4, Morne Morkel lbw b Harbhajan 12.
Extras: (B-6, LB-5, W-1, NB-18) 30
Total: (All out in 131.3 overs) 289
Fall of wickets: 1/36 2/54 3/111 4/158 5/164 6/172 7/180 8/250 9/264
Bowling: Zaheer Khan 6-0-32-0, Harbhajan Singh 48.3-23-59-5, Ishant Sharma 25-5-84-2, Amit Mishra 40-12-78-3, Virender Sehwag 10-2-20-0.