It took a bit of struggle and a lot of waiting but West Indies finally succeeded in matching South Africa's total of 543 in what was largely an excruciatingly slow day of Test cricket. The hosts were well-set at the end of the third day to press forward and possibly gain a lead of 100-150 to set up a sporting declaration. But the overnight pair of Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Dwayne Bravo instead settled for negative and defensive tactics, the kind which would give Test-cricket bashers a field day.
The result was a slender three-run first innings lead which gave West Indies a moral victory. But such is the state of West Indies cricket right now that even a draw is considered as good as a win. Clearly, they were not willing to throw anything away and instead focussed on tiring out the South Africans. The play-safe approach, combined with the unhelpful pitch, made this game a poor advertisement for Test cricket. The 90-minute rain delay after tea was more a welcome break than an interruption.
West Indies' tactics in the morning were mysterious. Trailing by 119 runs, the well-set Bravo and Chanderpaul batted like they were injected with tranquilisers. They played out the session without being separated but added just 39 runs - one less than their output after two hours of play yesterday. The attritional cricket spilled over to the afternoon session before Paul Harris, who did his bit in contributing to the dullness with negative tactics, got rid of the pair.
The stodgy resistance by Chanderpaul and Bravo drew parallels with the only other Test at this venue, four years ago. Coincidentally, Chanderpaul was at the forefront then and viewers, commentators and the opposition, India, were all equally baffled at the tactics. West Indies had set themselves up for an unassailable first-innings score, but Chanderpaul and his partner Marlon Samuels batted for almost an entire session like they had resigned themselves to a draw. Not surprisingly, the game had no result.
While Chanderpaul has been known to switch off and play the waiting game, it was unusual seeing Bravo so subdued. Like Samuels did four years ago, Bravo was singing from the same hymn sheet as Chanderpaul, refusing to indulge in any kind of risk.
The bowlers kept it simple, maintained a consistent line outside the off stump, and at times threw the bait with fuller deliveries, inviting the drive. Harris didn't make scoring any easier with his negative line from over the wicket, hoping to get some turn from the rough outside leg stump, but Bravo was happy to pad them away.
In one over, Harris bowled three wides down the leg side, unheard of in Test cricket. There were four men close to the bat - a slip, forward short leg, silly mid-off and short fine leg - but they were made redundant. At one point, Chanderpaul had three fielders deep on the on side, but he too regularly went forward to smother the spin or defend with soft hands. The pace of the game prompted Jeff Dujon to joke on commentary: "Oh boy, two runs off the over. They're hammering it."
Though there were boundary balls on offer, only two boundaries were scored in the morning session, both by Bravo off Dale Steyn. He spanked Lonwabo Tsotsobe past point after lunch to bring up one of his slower half-centuries, off 176 balls. Chanderpaul added only 15 to his overnight score, off 93 balls, when he spooned a catch back to Harris. The muted reception was in contrast to the previous evening when he reached three figures.
Bravo's marathon ended with a thin edge to the wicketkeeper off Harris. A sudden spurt of wickets enlivened the proceedings, and the smattering of spectators who showed up were treated to some entertainment from Ravi Rampaul and Sulieman Benn, who carted the third new ball around with some spanking shots through the off side. They weren't afraid to make room and punch the ball through the covers and carve it over the slips. Morne Morkel, who suffered the most in that brief surge, claimed both with rising deliveries. Mark Boucher in the process added to his illustrious tally by claiming his 500th dismissal.
The South African openers came out in fading light to put on 23 without incident. With the pitch good enough to last another five days, the only thing left to gain on the final day is batting practice. Unless something dramatic happens, a draw seems certain.