Two games at Johannesburg, two different teams, two magnificent chases, two scintillating hundreds, two completely different finishes and understandably two completely different emotions from the audiences.
That’s what it was at the Wanderers last week, the ground which once again lived up gloriously to its alias of ‘The Bullring’. In March 2006, the greatest chase ever in an ODI took the world by its neck and glued them to watch the action ball by ball. A seemingly unassailable total of 434 posted by Australia was crossed by South Africa with No 11 at the other end to Boucher, who eventually finished off the match with a boundary with one ball to spare.
So one could see the consternation among the crowd, many of whom will have been on the ground on that day almost eight years ago, when South Africa called off the chase with some 15 runs to get in three overs. They had come so far in their pursuit of 458 and you just do not pull away for fear of losing. It’s incredibly stupid and the last thing you would expect from a team that is at the top of the world in Test cricket. Does anyone remember what the result of that five match ODI series was against Australia? Who won the series? Does anyone care?
There has been confusion over who made the final call. Graeme Smith tacitly passed it on to the duo of Philander and Steyn when he said he and his team respected the decision they made out in the middle. But it is ridiculous that such a crucial decision can be left to two tail-enders. The worst case scenario was that South Africa would have been bowled out a few runs short of the target and lost the match. Would anyone have cared a week later? But to suddenly start blocking the last 18 deliveries with three wickets standing, after a day and a half of pulsating pursuit, just left jaws open and tongues wagging.
I doubt if there was a single South African around the world who could have backed the decision to go for a draw from the deepest part of his heart. I’m sure that minus those who took the decision, there was no cricketer who would have backed the white flag that South Africa threw up from out of the blue. Agreed this was a Test match where no fielding restrictions applied; not a one-dayer when you could have only 4-5 outside the circle depending on which period of the limited-over game you were in. Except for Dhoni all the other fielders were on the boundary lines, at least for Philander who’d got a half century in the previous innings. So it would have brought Steyn to the crease; maybe Dhoni would have brought a few fielders in to stop the single to keep him on strike. He could have risked a shot over the fielders. And Steyn can hit as some past knocks have indicated and as he showed off the last ball which he lifted for six. In fact it would have been less cruel if he had patted that one down the pitch. It was like saying ‘yes, we could have reached a world record chase, but I chose not to. So what is it you can do?’
No wonder then he was booed off the ground, something he had never imagined would happen to him in his own country. No wonder he went into shock upon reaching the dressing room and it took a magnanimous AB de Villiers to say that what he did was right, and if he and Faff du Plessis had been unable to finish it, no one should expect the tail to do so.
I would have thought that near the end the decision had been taken out of the hands of the cricketers. There was too much emotion and hard work that had gone on behind those last few deliveries for a human being to make the judgment. By then the game had taken a life of its own. But they sort of intruded to put a spanner in the wheel, much like two extras deciding on the final edit of a Batman movie.
To be sure South Africa have given their tag of chokers a whole new dimension and worn it around their neck in Test cricket as well. Unless there is something of a similar chase at Durban this time with a happy ending for the Proteas, Jacques Kallis would see off his magnificent career under the shadow of that horrible ending in Johannesburg which I feel will stretch for a long, long time.
It’s also to be acknowledged that the Indians have shown true grit in this match. Their batsmen, especially Kohli, had been taunted after the limited-over games as being tigers only at home. Given space to breathe in a five-day game with no pressures to score fast and Kohli especially came out punching, just four runs separating him from two hundreds in the Test match. For good or bad, it was India’s first Test match abroad since January 2012, something that should be taken into account when evaluating their Test match results.
Slightly east and one man will also be feeling he’s replied to his critics with three hundreds in four ODIs. Ostensibly it is no small feat by any count and Mohammad Hafeez joins someone like Zaheer Abbas and Mohammad Yousuf in two different capacities. However, if he has any sense of practicality he will admit that he has failed wherever it has mattered most to Pakistan and where the opposition bowing attack is strong irrespective of the pitches. In my view Sohaib Maqsood and Sharjeel Khan have shown greater skill and technique and someone like Ahmed Shehzad as well.
Sri Lanka have missed their top two spinners, Herath and Mendis and Malinga seems to have slowed in pace. In such a scenario where there is extra pressure on batting, I feel that among the Sri Lankans debutant Ashan Priyanjan deserves more credit for batting the way he did against one of the best bowling attacks in the world consisting of Saeed Akmal, Umar Gul and Junaid Khan, not to mention Hafeez and Afridi. But clearly Pakistan is now a better side with youngsters being recruited. Over the past few weeks the establishing of Shehzad and Sohaib and the opportunities given to Sharjeel, Bhatti and Anwar Ali has raised the bar for the complacent seniors, if you can call them that since the word has a lot more value attached than these guys give.
Azhar Ali has dipped at just the right time for Hafeez to make his return, maybe at No 3. Otherwise Ahmed Shehzad will have to wait if Hafeez is restored to his opening position in Tests. If Shehzad plays, it will be a tough call to drop one from Sohaib Maqsood, Asad Shafiq and Younis Khan to fit him in. A more principled team selection would make Hafeez wait, but with Asad Shafiq having had a drop in form in Zimbabwe, Hafeez may get the nod. After quite some time, Pakistan’s got some confidence back in batting, a far cry when they were walloped by South Africa earlier this year.