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At Hamilton, March 15-17, 2012. South Africa won by nine wickets. Toss: South Africa.
Only twice before had five wickets fallen on the same score during a Test innings, in 1945-46 and 1964-65. On those occasions too, the ignominy had belonged to New Zealand. The latest episode, on the first evening of this game, was astonishing by the standards of any era, yet there was nothing freakish or inexplicable about any of the dismissals: all rewarded classic fast bowling by Steyn and Philander. South Africa went on to win in two and a half days, but it was a peculiar contest: despite overwhelming their hosts, they never really landed another memorable punch after the five-for-nothing flurry on the first evening.
McCullum and Taylor had displayed heaps of resilience in nursing their side to 133 for two on a nippy pitch and under overcast skies. There was always the feeling that a wicket could fall… but not five at once! It started with an uncontrolled pull from McCullum - hurried by Steyn's extra pace - to deep square leg. Taylor edged a lifter to slip, and Williamson went the same way seven balls later. Vettori was bowled by a snorting nip-backer from Philander, and Bracewell nicked his third delivery to Boucher. Within the space of 20 balls after tea the innings had collapsed from tentatively promising to utterly derelict. There was a distinct feeling that the result had been decided already.
That view was under serious threat on day two, however, when a magnificent morning spell from Gillespie reduced South Africa to 88 for six (Martin had already removed Smith, for the eighth time in Tests, the previous evening). But where the touring bowlers had attacked like sharks at the first drop of blood, the New Zealanders ran out of steam when confronted by the relentless (though appropriately subdued) skills of de Villiers. His outrageous talent was all but stripped of bells and whistles although, having calmed nerves in a stand of 63 with Boucher, he gently encouraged the tailenders to be themselves. Morkel responded with a notably controlled block-hit-hit-block 35 to give South Africa a lead of 68; it felt at least a hundred more.
Once again, the result seemed a foregone conclusion when Steyn and Philander claimed two each to leave New Zealand still three runs behind with six wickets left by the end of the second day. After 25 balls, at seven for three, a two-day Test had seemed possible.
Shortly before the close, Taylor was lbw to a Steyn delivery which looked likely to miss leg stump, even on replay, yet his appeal to the third umpire was rejected on the evidence of Virtual Eye. The technology system's developer later admitted that poor light had compromised the data gathering, and suggested that the third umpire should use gut instinct in such cases. Taylor was phlegmatic: "Overall we're better with it than without it."
Williamson looked unperturbed, and there was still abstract hope of an extraordinary turnaround when New Zealand reached 141 for five just before lunch on the third day, a lead of 73. But it was very abstract: van Wyk fell an over before the break, and the remaining four wickets lasted just 29 balls after it. The extraordinary Philander claimed six in an innings for the first time in his six Tests, to finish with his second haul of ten in a match. His secret was simple: less is more. Whereas lavish swing and bounteous seam movement draw gasps of appreciation, smaller amounts induce more edges, hit stumps more often and earn more lbws. And when six out of six deliveries (rather than four or five) are asking similar but slightly different questions, batsmen are far more likely to come up with the wrong answers.
With just 101 required for victory, Smith was in his element. The most prolific scorer in the history of successful fourth-innings run-chases, he compiled his tenth such score of fifty-plus (including four hundreds). Whenever the debate surfaces about big-match temperament, this statistic should feature.
Man of the Match: V. D. Philander.
Close of play: first day, South Africa 27-2 (Petersen 8, Amla 2); second day, New Zealand 65-4 (Williamson 41, Vettori 0).