A stalemate to savour
So it has ended without a winner or a loser. After 14 days of action, at times frenetic, at times tense, at times combative, at times confrontational, at times serene, at times so exciting you couldn't afford to miss a ball, at times extremely skilful, at times strangely defensive, we don't have a winner. Shouldn't the most anticipated Test series since the 2005 Ashes have been decided over five Tests?
South Africa can feel pleased with the result after effectively having been 128 for 6 in the second innings of the deciding Test. India can feel pleased with the result, having come back from the Centurion defeat and to win in some of the most testing conditions their batsmen have encountered. South Africa can feel disappointed they haven't won any of their last three home series, that when it came to pressure situations they didn't look good enough without Jacques Kallis, that this is the third time they have beaten India by an innings to take a 1-0 lead without going on to win the series. India can feel disappointed they have let slip their best chance of winning a series in South Africa, for in all likelihood they won't have the services of Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid the next time they come here.
We can feel pleased we got to see Dale Steyn, Laxman, Kallis and Tendulkar at their best, with the side cast not disappointing much either. We can feel disappointed that the defensive captaincy, the spread-out fields, the fear of declaration, the fear of losing, the slow over-rates, didn't give us a clear winner.
It was a fascinating contest between two different cricketing cultures. South Africa, often good starters but not always good when in the lead, came out full of intent in Centurion. India, often poor starters but good when in a corner, came back in a manner few expected them to in Durban.
South Africa's attack was based - aside from Steyn's swing - on pace and bounce, on hurting the batsmen, on testing their courage. India's attack relied on skill of wrist, on attacking the stumps and not bodies, on getting just enough movement to get wickets. Even though Zaheer Khan's comeback was a turning point for an ailing attack, Harbhajan Singh went on to become their most successful bowler, level with Morne Morkel at 15 wickets and behind Steyn (21) on the wicket-taking chart.
South Africa's batsmen showed their better knowledge of the conditions, leaving deliveries better than India did. That South Africa took 16 catches in the slips and gully as opposed to India's four doesn't lie. India had to work hard on that aspect, on making batsmen play, and then beating them with the movement, which meant the edges - when earned - went to the wicketkeeper, and not the slips.
The cultures interchanged too. South Africa, for a change, ran away with the individual honours. Kallis was by far the most consistent batsman in the series, and it seemed only freak run-outs and freak deliveries spitting from a good-length area could get him out. Steyn's swing bowling was phenomenal. His two spells on the third day in Cape Town, 66 deliveries of pure venom, is one of the best we are likely to see. India, despite their attack's reliance on Zaheer for direction, went the traditional South African way, getting small contributions from everywhere. Their whole side registered two centuries and two five-fors; Kallis alone scored three centuries, and Steyn alone took two five-wicket hauls.
No new stars were found, but Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Cheteshwar Pujara showed promise. The old men in form continued to defy age: Tendulkar scored one of his more challenging centuries to keep India alive in Cape Town, Kallis was again the rescue man for South Africa, and Laxman was just being Laxman in scoring 96 on a pitch where 39 and 38 (Laxman in the first innings) were the next-best scores. The old men under pressure struggled, but both Dravid and Mark Boucher played their part in saving the deciding Test for their team. The setting sun can wait.
The last three series between these two top teams in the world have been drawn. Most will find 1-1 a fair result here. However, those greedy for great Test cricket will find it unfair that when it came to the last two days, neither captain showed that his will to win was greater than the fear of losing. India were scared of a South African counterattack that could take their target beyond their reach. Once safe, South Africa never thought of declaring on the fourth evening. Did they over-rate the threat of Virender Sehwag? Did they fear the sacrilege of losing to India at home? Neither of that, though, explained Paul Harris bowling with a deep point in place on the final morning, when it was abundantly clear that India had shut shop, and more importantly when he was constantly getting balls to rear towards Gautam Gambhir's chest from the rough outside the left-hander's off stump.
Those last two days notwithstanding this series cannot be bad news for the world order. India and South Africa have been the most consistent teams over the last two years, and it shows in the rankings. South Africa's record of not having won any of their last three home series shows in their being No. 2. England have joined the race with a smashing Ashes win. We're back to the days before Australia started dominating world cricket. Bring on another year of similar hard-fought Test cricket.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo