They couldn't out Hashim Amla at all. So India, down to three bowlers and led by an exceptional Harbhajan Singh, found a way around him, leaving him stranded with nine mandatory balls to go and sealing a heart-stopping, series-levelling win that also meant they retained the top spot in the ICC rankings. As was fitting, it was Harbhajan who brought about the final wicket with a slider to the left-hand batsman Morne Morkel, who had put together a 76-minute last-wicket stand with Amla. The final few steps didn't come easy for India: the last three wickets batted out 53.3 overs to set up a beautiful Test-match finish.
For eight hours and 19 minutes in this innings, which took to 23 hours and 22 minutes the total time he's spent at the wicket for the series, Amla saw everything: offbreaks, topspinners, unintended doosras, big legbreaks, googlies, bouncers, full ones, a blow to the elbow, the bowlers' joy, their frustration, and Harbhajan's eruption on taking the last wicket. At every stage - when he reached fifty or his hundred, when he was hurt, when he was concentrating, when he was defending, during those final few overs of counting each delivery down, and when he was walking back after one of the biggest disappointments he has experienced on a cricket field - the calm expression on his face was unchanged.
Amla batted like the Monk who didn't need to sell a Ferrari, and it took a special bowling effort to deny his side the series win. Harbhajan answered India's call with spin bowling aggressive and patient, smart and persistent, and came up with that wicket-taking delivery when it had deserted the other bowlers.
If Amla never looked like getting out, Harbhajan never looked like letting anyone settle. India had 98 overs to get seven wickets but 52.2 of them were a write-off: they were bowled to Amla, and this man was not going to get out. Not today. They did well, though, to create enough pressure in the remaining overs - despite two dropped catches - to finish off the match with 16 minutes remaining in the day's play.
India woke up to a bright and sunny day, but were thwarted in the first session by Amla and Ashwell Prince. For about two hours, Amla kept killing their hopes, Prince kept raising them only to not edge to hand. Finally, just when the draw started to become the favoured result, Harbhajan came back for his second spell of the day, from his favoured High Court End.
In the first spell, he had tried to get Prince lbw in a fashion similar to the one in the first innings, and failed. In his second he went over the stumps and made it difficult for Prince to judge which deliveries to leave. The leg line troubled Prince, and finally he jabbed at one outside off and lobbed it to mid-off.
Amit Mishra once again produced the special delivery out of nowhere, this time a googly to take out AB de Villiers in the penultimate over before the lunch break, the third time he had taken a wicket just before a break in the innings. de Villiers' was the big wicket because he was the one batsman capable of using his feet and hitting spinners off their length.
In the second spell, six overs each either side of lunch, Harbhajan looked menacing with almost every delivery. After lunch, Harbhajan went on to suggest JP Duminy might become his new Ponting. Offbreak, offbreak, slider. Duminy caught in front again. Dale Steyn didn't have a clue about deliveries spinning down the leg side, and kept getting beaten. Harbhajan smartly moved round the stumps, and trapped him too.
Thereafter Amla found an able partner in Parnell, who looked much more assured than Steyn, and helped by a dropped catch by Suresh Raina at a wide fourth slip, played out 24.2 overs. Amla manipulated the strike well: out of eight overs that Harbhajan bowled during that stand, Parnell got away by facing only 12 balls from the best bowler around.
A soft shot befitting a No. 9 arrived duly, after which Amla shielded Paul Harris for a while. From facing four balls of each over, he gradually let Harris face three each, and by the time Harris generated enough confidence in Amla, a soft shot befitting a No. 10 came by. Ishant got both the wickets, but 8.3 more overs had been negated.
That started the most exciting period of the match. Morkel batted solidly along with Amla, they both judged the leaves well, they both defended with soft hands, they both frustrated India more with every passing delivery. Towards the end, mind games began. Amla took a single late in a Mishra over to face Harbhajan in the next over, Dhoni removed Harbhajan and tried the part-time stuff from Sachin Tendulkar and Sehwag, and got Harbhajan to bowl at Morkel again.
Nothing gave. Amla seemed to have found a partner who was holding his nerve well. The desperation on Indian faces kept getting more and more apparent with every passing delivery. With 3.2 overs to go, Amla cut Tendulkar towards the boundary, took a single so as to face two more overs as opposed to one. Sehwag hoped it would reach the boundary as he chased, but slyly tried to kick it over when he saw it stop inches before the rope. Just to keep Morkel on strike. That's how much it mattered.
Amla duly played out the next over, Dhoni duly saved Harbhajan for the over after that. Harbhajan had six more balls left, from the High Court End. The first pitched middle, turned away. The second pitched leg, and broke towards off. The third was the killer slider, Morkel made his first mistake in 60 deliveries. Harbhajan roared, Amla's expression didn't change much.