South Africa ensure Test retains its draw
To be fair to Ravi Shastri, India's director, he perhaps said it in comparison to a dull draw on a flat pitch. That a three-day Test is better than a dull draw finds resonance among cricket fans. Why, there has been a push for Test cricket to be reduced to four days from some suits and also Darren Lehmann recently. Has the draw or the fifth day really been what is killing Test cricket, though? There have been 19 draws in the last two years, out of 86 Tests. Five of those draws came about because of rain. One of the others fell prey to bad light in Abu Dhabi, and was yet a fascinating finish. At least four of the remaining were awesome Tests.
This doesn't count the number of other finishes made awesome because of the possibility of the draw: for instance, England fighting for dear life against Sri Lanka at Headingley, South Africa against Australia at Newlands, but falling just short. The draw, while not unique to our sport, is an anachronism in today's world, it is said. But it is the draw, its possibility, that makes Test cricket what it is. A victory has to be absolute. Test cricket doesn't impose restrictions, but it is finite. If a team can survive and survive for long enough, for five days, and if it is still walking, the aggressor walks away without the win.
A close parallel to this is tournament chess. You have loads of time, but to win you have to checkmate within the time allotted. If player A runs out of time and player B has time left but there is no sequence that leads to checkmate of player A, we have ourselves a draw. South Africa are player B at Feroz Shah Kotla. They don't have a sequence of moves that can checkmate India, but they are fighting to make sure India run out of time. This aspect of time makes Test cricket the closest thing to life in sport.
Ironically it is said that this generation doesn't have the time for these complexities and niceties. Whoever says it hasn't met the generation that was present at Feroz Shah Kotla, which lived every ball of South Africa's defensive masterclass. As Hashim Amla began to face the 35th over, with South Africa 38 for 1, a hum of expectation rose with every dot ball quickly delivered by Ravindra Jadeja. When Amla strode forward to smell the last ball of the over as he defended it, a loud cheer went around the ground. Amla had now faced 100 deliveries. For six runs. Three of them off edges. The first of which came after 45 dots.
Yet nobody got bored. When the partnership between Amla and AB de Villiers reached 50 balls without a run scored, another cheer went around. Number of balls faced became personal landmarks. There was a standing ovation when Temba Bavuma punched R Ashwin for a six. While the crowd appreciated this resolve from South Africa, they went up with every edge that didn't go to hand, with every ball that spun past the bat, with every appeal. They urged the umpires to play on till 4.30pm despite fading light. They spotted every legbreak Ashwin bowled. They clapped the batsmen off after 72 runs in 72 overs, with only the most irresistible run-scoring opportunities made use of.
It presented the bowlers and batsmen with a different kind of test. The batsmen refused to score runs, which increased the number of close-in fielders. At the same time it reduced the chances of making a mistake. Batsmen are likely to make fewer mistakes, but unlikely to get away with those mistakes no matter how few. The bowlers and the fielding captain are asked to produce magic.
Ashwin nearly had that moment that could immortalise him, that could put him in the league of absolute and rare legends such as Shane Warne. Imagine a batsman hell-bent on defence, giving you nothing, someone who has scored just 11 off 121, many of them as an afterthought. And you, an offspinner who has rediscovered yourself by bowling and trusting your stock delivery and have tormented this batsman and the others through the series, slip him a legbreak, which completely throws him off his rhythm, but the edge misses the catching man by a couple of feet. Just imagine if it goes go to hand. That's direct entry to the Hall of Fame, to murals being erected outside grounds.
Ashwin came back with a beautiful offbreak next ball to get one of the two South Africa wickets to fall in those 72 overs, but he will have enough time to produce that magic on day five again. Don't be surprised if he throws in a wrong'un. You are concentrating on the offbreaks, watching closely for the subtle changes in length and trajectory, the dip and drift, and he throws in the wristspinner, which is enough to throw you off, but it is a googly. He has done this before. He might need to do it again.
Virat Kohli nearly provided the magic by introducing Shikhar Dhawan, who produced an edge in his first over, but it flew over silly point. As a spectator, as you saw Kohli miss a half chance at gully, you wondered if he wondered if he had made a mistake by not enforcing the follow-on, or by not declaring earlier than he did.
Oh so much time to ponder so many things. The beauty of Test cricket. Time. Now we have a whole night's time to ponder what might be, and one of the teams can't even win this match. Some even checked the forecast and, all of a sudden, talk of fog on the fifth morning appeared. Some are put in the mind of Adelaide when Faf du Plessis, who is yet to bat although he has had a terrible series, and de Villiers blocked the life out of Australia's offensive. Some point to Ahmedabad when Alastair Cook and Matt Prior frustrated India for 60.4 overs but, when the breakthrough arrived, the others folded cheaply. Some think of the other occasions when South Africa have shown they are the best when it comes to batting when scoring is not a consideration. Or of Moeen Ali coming heartbreakingly close. Of Nuwan Pradeep hanging in for the last five balls in the Test prior to that.
On South Africa's last tour to India, in Kolkata, Amla batted 394 balls for just 123 runs, but Harbhajan Singh, lampooned by fans a Test earlier, produced a final wicket with just nine balls of time left. At Newlands last year, Amla, de Villiers, du Plessis and Vernon Philander fashioned a similar blockathon, but with 4.3 of the 140 overs remaining, Ryan Harris, about to undergo knee surgery, flogged his body one last time to deliver Australia the win.
On day five in Delhi, South Africa's heroes might just go over the line on a slow pitch where edges were not carrying. India might find a hero of the pedigree of Harris or Harbhajan, to conjure magic despite tired fingers. For all we know South Africa might collapse in the first session, but it is the possibility of the draw that has given us the most fascinating day of Test cricket in this otherwise underwhelming series. Whatever you do, Test cricket, don't change that.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo