January 1, 2014

The Durban dogfight

All bets were on a quick South African win. Until India dug in

"Who gave that bail the permission to take a walk?" © Getty Images

Batting is hard. But it's not as hard as betting.

Oh sure, anyone can have a bet. But then anyone can pick up a bat. If you are entertaining hopes of success however, the gambling arts are truly unforgiving. You must toil for hours in the barrel-scraping regions of the internet, trudging across the barren wilderness of sports reports, hacking through the steamy, fetid jungles of sports forums, on a quest to find that fresh piece of news, that information gem that will give you an edge.

Batsmen sometimes wake up on match day with the sun blazing in through their hotel window, feeling like a billion dollars. They wolf down their granola, skip on to the team bus, stride out of the pavilion to the middle, loudly and confidently take guard, survey the field with lordly disdain and get a shooter first ball that uproots their off peg.

So it is with gambling. You might have weighed up every circumstance, calculated the probabilities to seven decimal places, adjusted for wind direction, and piled up your immaculate reasoning like an intricate and beautiful palace of cards. But one puff of the cruel wind of randomness can scatter your logic in all directions.

The horse you backed decides on the way to the start that it doesn't want to be a horse, it wants to be a hippopotamus, so crashes through the rails and heads for the nearest watering hole; the striker you backed to score first hits the post three times in the first minute then gets himself sent off by setting fire to the referee's shorts and biting his ankles.

Gamblers, even successful ones, lose most of the time. Even the bets that go to plan have a way of making you suffer, so by the end you feel like you've sat through a six-hour wildlife documentary following a group of orphaned baby gazelles crossing a lion reserve.

Just such a bet occurred on Monday.

South Africa had Vernon Philander. They had Dale Steyn. Rain, snow, hurricanes, asteroids, frog plagues and gopher attacks were unlikely to save India. Adjust for the possibility of a choke and there it was. South Africa to win. It was obvious.

Things started well. Kohli shouldered one to the wicketkeeper and Pujara was Steyned. Then India began to dig in. I'd put Rohit Sharma down for a plucky three or four, so when he reached double figures I began to lose my patience. In the end, he hung around for an hour or so during which my jabbing at the refresh button became positively indignant.

Jadeja took on the situation with the eye-widening bravado of a man who stands up to tell a dirty joke at his great-grandparents' wedding anniversary party

MS Dhoni didn't seem to want to get out either, and I started taking little walks between deliveries. After ten overs during which I had covered 50 miles of carpet, I was losing hope. And then, India's captain, who never does anything stupid, did something stupid.

In came Ravindra Jadeja. I prepared myself for another long wait, because as we all know, Jadeja can bat. Fortunately, on this occasion, he didn't seem to want to do it for long. He took on the situation with the eye-widening bravado of a man who stands up to tell a dirty joke at his great-grandparents' wedding anniversary party. Hey, I've got one, he says, and launches into a six. Everyone applauds. What audacity, what cheek, what nerve.

If you're that guy, though, you've got to know when to quit. Not Ravindra. Off he goes again, but this time, he misjudges the mood. His big ugly swing goes wildly wrong. The family gathering falls silent, aunts and uncles fix him with disapproving looks and to the sound of embarrassed coughing, a crestfallen Ravindra picks up his bat and leaves quietly.

Surely now it was all over? Not quite.

Ajinkya Rahane is my favourite Indian player. You can admire Dhawan's eye-watering clean hitting, Pujara's relentlessly dogged doggedness, Kohli's all-round air of superiority, but Rahane is the magician. His batting is designed for ethereal late spring mornings at Lord's or for fairytale exploits under the IPL lights. Asking him to dig in and block is like asking King Arthur to use Excalibur to excavate a trench.

Yet he was doing it. There ensued a 96-ball interlude during which no wicket fell. I chewed fingernails. I chewed pencils. I began to entertain self-doubt. Don't India deserve the draw after all? I began to imagine all sorts of bizarre scenarios such as Ishant scoring a rapid hundred to set up a declaration, then skittling the South Africans to win the game.

I awoke from my tortured reverie to find that Zaheer was out, in that not-really-out kind of way that we remember from the pre-DRS era, and that, more or less, was that. It was finally over. After five hours of being held hostage by a scoreboard, millions of people around the planet were able to stop staring at a screen, to go outside, and to generally get on with their lives, as though awoken from a trance. Such is the strange hypnotic power of Test cricket.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England. He tweets here