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While we're left wondering what might have been had either team pushed for a win in the final stages of a wonderful Test match, we'd do well to remember that it's difficult for players to take calls that could possibly undo five days of hard work
Sidharth Monga in Johannesburg
December 22, 2013
"This. Is. Awesome."
Those who watch World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) know that chant well. You can hear it during the great, long matches when the wrestling and the play-acting come together perfectly. When a staggering wrestler pulls great technical manoeuvres out of nowhere. When the other clearly exhausted fighter finds a way to pull out of submission holds. Dragging inch by inch to the rope, escaping the hold and buying time. Then he makes a comeback. However, when he unleashes his finishing move, the other wrestler kicks out of it. It is all unbelievable. On the day, the two are great equals. Whatever one guy can throw, the other takes it before hitting back. It all builds up the "this is awesome" chant.
Now WWE loves to tease you. It can't let that feud end on one night. You can't have a clear winner on the night. It likes to build up to later matches so that the rivalry can go on for months. Often, there is contrived outside interference to make the heel (the bad guy) win and the face (the good guy) lose. There is no clear winner on the night, but both wrestlers take away moral victories. They come back to fight again the next week.
This Test. Was. Awesome. Except that it was real. There was a real 35-year-old bowling eight-over spells, throwing himself around to save singles. There was a real man under pressure to save his place in the side, braving pain between his thumb and index finger for 50 overs, facing the hard cricket ball and taking the bottom hand off every time it hit the bat hard. There was a bowler with a toothache trying to win it with the bat. There was a young man in his second Test directly hitting the stumps to try and turn the match around. A man struggling to stand on his feet was padded up to come out to bat, should it come to it. All of that for a draw. Unlike WWE, there was no outside interference.
When they are done claiming moral advantage, trying to turn the psychological screw into each other, both the teams will sit down and reflect on what a great Test this was. A match in which time, such a beautiful concept, became an entity with life of its own.
On the fourth morning, India tried to just bat out time so South Africa didn't have enough to force a win. It was almost a dead period, but it was giving India insurance before they took the game forward. Later during that day, they rushed through their overs because now the time was different. The same team, pushing to get as many overs in, had to slow down on the final afternoon because losing had become a possibility now.
This was a match where the possibility of the draw messed around with otherwise clear heads. This is what Test cricket does to you. It is not just about scoring runs or winning matches. Saving the match is an option. If South Africa didn't have that option, there is every chance they would have won it after the great partnership between Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers. If that option wasn't available, there is every chance South Africa would have perished going for the win, possibly playing injudicious shots.
There was something about having worked hard for four-and-half days that made the players give it their all. In the 82nd over, du Plessis' thumb jarred against the handle, leaving him in visible pain. For quite a few overs after that, he kept getting some attention during the over beaks. He took painkillers. He would have received more treatment during the tea break. When he started out, he couldn't even have known where he was headed.
Du Plessis came in ahead of a legend, Jacques Kallis, because the legend had to bowl too much in the absence of the injured Morne Morkel. There was no way du Plessis could have thought of a draw or a win when he began with three-and-a-half sessions to go. He just batted and batted and batted. When he was hit, he lived with the pain. When the ball misbehaved, he took the bottom hand off. When he got edges that didn't go to hand, he put them behind him. He brought his team to within 16 runs of the most amazing win, but ran himself out.
Try figuring out how it feels. To go from a certain defeat to hopes of saving the game to being favourites for the win to watching his team-mates somehow coming back with just the draw. Try figuring out how it feels for Virat Kohli. He came this close to becoming the first man - not just a visitor - to scoring two centuries in a Wanderers Test. He went through the rollercoaster over the last day and half in the field. He saw good balls and edges produced not go to hand. He saw freakish deliveries and the only ordinary decision of the match keep his side alive. He saw an out-of-form du Plessis pull out one of the great rearguards. He saw Zaheer Khan bowling over after over, putting in dive after dive and running to midwicket to back up throws when bowling.
After all but three overs of the five days, it all came down to the gambler's instinct. A gambler who has to risk all his winnings for the jackpot. With 16 runs to go in three overs - an injured Morkel and a classical No. 11 Imran Tahir in the shed - Dhoni asked two of South Africa's most verbal men, Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn, if they felt like risking it all. He would have been all over South Africa had they lost a wicket then, but then there was the win, the historic win to go for.
This was between a side that was given no chance before the series by many and a side that all upbeat. They had both brought it down to this. Who had the heart to risk it?
The rule of gambling is, you should know when to walk away. When you walk away, though, you have to live with that feeling of "what if".
What if you had gone ahead with that final bet? There are no right or wrong decisions here. Dhoni could have attacked with four slips and a gully. South Africa could have taken the singles and seen what they could have done in the last over. We were not in the middle, though. We don't know how much is at stake. India's bowlers had bowled almost 50 overs each. Imagine losing and trying to recover for a Test in three days' time. South Africa had defied all odds. Imagine losing a home Test after scoring 450 in the final innings.
So we had a slightly contrived end. India, in their push to bowl as many overs to go for the win, had bowled one over more than they should have by the time the mandatory overs began. It seemed, initially, like that would hurt India, but after du Plessis' run-out and JP Duminy's wicket it seemed like that over could actually be the one where India could force a result. Ironically, though, that extra over turned out to be a non-event. Both teams chose to walk away. They will wonder what might have happened had they had gone for the win. That's hindsight, though. In the middle, in that atmosphere, it is difficult to take calls that can possibly undo all the hard work done by their team-mates.
So we have no clear winner. Only moral victories. The feud shall continue. If this was happening in a squared circle, you would have heard, "This. Is. Awesome."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Sidharth Monga
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