“The Proteas could have created history on that day. They could have chosen to bury the ghosts of their disastrous World Cup history, which started from the horrifying rain rule in 1992, then and there”.
A few days before the Christmas of 2013, South Africa and India played out the first match of a much awaited series at Johannesburg and it turned out to be an eye-opener for South African cricket fans and followers around the globe. What made this Test match special, more than the lip-smacking fourth innings, is the easily missable bigger picture; that of South Africa’s World Cup hoodoos.
For years and years, South African fans had been on the quest to identify what exactly holds them back in World Cups or let’s say, every single ICC tournament. They had a world-beating team, an array of fast bowlers that could instill fear into any opposition, some outwardly batsmen and some great skippers. Yet success at the biggest stage, when it mattered the most, eluded them. The winter of 2013 provided a few telling insights, albeit in the longer version of the game.
The capsule version of the first three innings
Buoyed by Vernon Philander’s stringent lines and unflagging accuracy, South Africa hammered down the visiting Indian batsmen on a paradise of a batting surface at the Bullring. An eye-pleasing ton from India’s latest revolutionary batsman, Virat Kohli, had set a strong platform for the visitors but the last five wickets fell for 15 runs as India fell flat on their face while attempting to get off to a strong start in the first Test.
However, they were in for some respite as the Proteas themselves seemed a tad under-prepared and perished to 146/6 from 130/1, losing as many as three wickets at 130 alone. That the Indian resuscitation came through Ishant Sharma, the butt of quite a few jokes in the months prior to that, further bolstered the fact that this Indian team was there to conquer the Rainbow Nation. A fighting half-century from Philander took the Proteas to 244 and respectability but that couldn’t have hidden the disappointment of conceding a lead fraught on their faces.
It reached seemingly insane levels as the meticulous Proteas bowling attack looked bizarrely toothless against the power-packed willow of Virat Kohli and the desolate doggedness of Cheteshwar Pujara. The duo, pioneers of India’s massively rising stock in Test cricket at the time, put on a massive 222 run partnership that all but took the venom out of South Africa’s bowling attack.
Good as they are, Philander and co came storming back and bowled India out for 421 as they set the hosts a humungous, never-achieved-before target of 458.
Let’s be fair and say that the Proteas side of the time could have chased anything….ANYTHING! There was solid reason to believe that too. They had tortured Australia in their backyard, including chasing down 414 at Perth, and had the ominous presence of four fighters – Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis – and a maniacally freakish batsman, who, when he had his eyes set on something, could achieve it with the blink of his eyelid..IF he wanted.
The de Villiers – du Plessis stand
Remember dreaming about rescuing your country from war with your friend in school? Well, though not exactly a war, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers, schoolmates and best buddies, had a rapport that went beyond the 22 yards. du Plessis’ memorable debut at Adelaide had given enough evidence of how seriously these kids take saving-their-country-mission.
Another blockathon beckoned at Johannesburg against India. For the initial part of the association, both of them were happy to bide their time and salvage their wickets. Runs were hard to come by but no one was thinking of chasing down what would have been a world record run chase then.
From 197/4, with Kallis and Smith back in the hut, the onus was on de Villiers and du Plessis to do the unthinkable – save the Test.
Yes! saving the Test was unthinkable at the time.
Such was the strength of the partnership that by the time it reached 100, the Proteas were starting to smell a win.
The duo were assured, casual, easy to watch at the crease and some dry Indian bowling meant that runs were literally flowing. The 205 run stand had India dumbfounded but right when they were on the cusp of taking South Africa to a historic win, Ishant Sharma (that man again!) struck with the big wicket of de Villiers.
Let’s stop right there and take a step back. Where have we seen this before? The familiar script of things turning sour when it mattered? Oh yes, the World Cup. Not convinced? Wait till you hear what happened to Faf du Plessis.
Next over, JP Duminy, the saviour five years prior to that in Australia, was cleaned up by Mohammad Shami but in Vernon Philander, Faf du Plessis had a trusted ally. This was surely well within South Africa’s grasp. If they could get back up from 197/4 and reach 407/6, the next 51 runs could certainly not be tough.
And then it happened!
du Plessis timed the ball exceptionally well to mid-off and took off for a non-existent single. Ajinkya Rahane, one of the sharpest fielders in the Indian team, wasted no time to get to the ball and throw down the non-striker’s stumps with du Plessis well and truly out of the crease.
The slide had begun. If you are a South African fan, you know a run-out signals panic in the camp and it usually unfolds in a World Cup semi-final.
This wasn’t one. But the pressure was similar. Till they managed to reach the tip of the unachievable, there was no panic. Despite the Graeme Smith run-out early on, South Africa believed they could do it. This was until the du Plessis run-out.
If you haven’t known what dejection is, stare into Dale Steyn’s cold eyes that evening when his partner, Vernon Philander, walked up to him and stressed that they should look to play it safe and salvage a draw. Time was running out on day 5 and although the target was well within the realms of achievable even in a World of no T20s, South Africa chose to give up.
There are a number of factors that contributed to the decision. It was just the first Test of the series, Morne Morkel had bowled just two overs in the second innings and was injured and Imran Tahir could barely bat. But when du Plessis got out, South Africa were just 16 runs away from an unbelievable win. 3.1 overs later, when stumps was called, South Africa were still eight away, that in itself courtesy an anger-oozing six from Steyn with the game all but over.
The Proteas could have created history on that day. They could have chosen to bury the ghosts of their disastrous World Cup history, which started from the horrifying rain rule in 1992, then and there. They might even have lost but years down the lane, they could have proudly told their grandkids that they tried. They chose not to!