World-class Ashwin overcomes South Africa's grit

Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis dug in during another tough session BCCI

A remarkable cricketing run has come to an end. Hashim Amla had played all of seven Tests, and AB de Villiers only 22, when South Africa last lost a Test series away from home, in 2006 in Sri Lanka. Since then they had won series in Pakistan, Bangladesh, England, Australia, West Indies, New Zealand, England again, Australia again, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. They had drawn two series each in India and the UAE, and one in Bangladesh.

That run ended in Nagpur. It ended at 3.22 pm on Friday, when R Ashwin swerved an arm ball through Morne Morkel's gate to pick up his seventh wicket of the innings, his 12th of the match, and his 24th of the series. Through most of the series, the pitches had helped spin to such an extent that some of his skill had been obscured. But on the third day, against an obdurate pair of South African batsmen who fought tooth and nail on a difficult surface, Ashwin demonstrated all the craft and guile that had contributed to his rise from promising to world-class.

South Africa's run ended with a second defeat inside three days, but the third day showcased the skill and fight that had sustained so much of their unbeaten away run: in Kolkata five years ago, when Amla had batted for over eight hours and remained unbeaten to try and resist India's push for a series-levelling win; in Adelaide in 2012, where de Villiers and Faf du Plessis, on debut, had helped South Africa bat out 148 overs to save the Test and seal a series win; in similar circumstances in Colombo last year, where the entire team had blocked and blocked to bat out 111 overs, while only scoring 159, to save another Test and win another series.

Here in Nagpur, a draw was out of the question, with a full three days left. Talking about their chances of winning seemed like mocking the position South Africa were in. They had only passed 200 once in their four previous innings in the series, and had been bowled out for 79 in their first innings here. They began the day 32 for 2. Their target was 310.

The pitch seemed a touch slower than it had been on the first two days, but uneven bounce was more frequent. Thoughts of what the pitch could do seemed to consume de Villiers' mind, as he jumped out repeatedly to Ashwin in a display of skills that belonged on a slippery lower-league football pitch rather than in a Test match. It almost seemed inevitable that he wasn't watching Ashwin's hand when he slipped in what proved to be an innings-terminating carrom ball.

Amla at the other end was blocking resolutely, blocking everything. Left foot forward, head over the ball, block, block, block. Du Plessis joined him, and adopted the same plan. For the first time in the match, a partnership developed, even if it dealt in the currency of time rather than runs. The batsmen made small, incremental gains. Moral victories of a sort.

Right through the series, Ashwin had bowled to the right-handers without a fielder patrolling the covers. Now he sent down what might have been his first half-volley, and Amla drove him through that gap for four. In the first innings, du Plessis had tried to hit Ravindra Jadeja over his head, but the ball had bowled him, sliding through straight rather than turning away. Now du Plessis got one right in his slot, and he swung freely through the line and launched a clean, straight six.

Amit Mishra came on, and immediately generated dip and turn to find Amla's edge, not once but twice. Ironically, a pitch that made ordinary deliveries look threatening now punished balls that would have taken wickets elsewhere. One edge fell short of the keeper, the other short of first slip.

By the end of the first session, Amla and du Plessis had forced the bowlers into trying new things. Ashwin went right-arm around. Jadeja went left-arm over.

Lunch seemed to rejuvenate the spinners, bring the snap back to the work their fingers and bodies were putting on the ball. Jadeja turned the ball past the outside edge. Ashwin turned it past the inside edge, got it to pop up off the pad. India went up in collective appeal. The crowd - not a full house, but certainly a large one - appealed along with them, a tinge of high-pitched desperation in their voices.

There was desperation in India's pleas too. Virat Kohli ran from leg slip to short cover during the course of one appeal. Everyone apart from Cheteshwar Pujara, who caught the ball at short leg, went up for another, getting into a V formation in a moment of unintended choreography.

The umpires remained unmoved. Amla and du Plessis remained unmoved. Left foot forward, head over the ball, block, block, block. There was a magnificent grimness to it, but spectators can only remain riveted to such a spectacle for so long. Some of the occupants of the press box had changed their flight plans, confident this would be a three-day finish. Now they wondered if they had been a touch overconfident.

Up in the top tier of the stands, the view was spectacular, the fielders pieces in a board game. There was still noise from the crowd, but it was all a little disconnected from the action in the middle. Stray whistles, chants that had nothing to do with the cricket. "Five, four, three, two, one, yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!"

The top tier of the VCA Stadium is seven storeys high. You can use the elevator to get there, but only if you're a senior citizen. That's what the sign above the door says. With 20 minutes left for tea, South Africa were 130 for 4. They needed a further 180. This stark fact, up on the electronic scoreboard-cum-replay-screen, was a reminder to du Plessis and Amla that all the work they had done through the best part of two sessions had taken them far less than halfway to the summit of their climb. It was as if they had gone up and down the stadium stairs, all seven flights of them, without a break, for close to two sessions, and the scoreboard was telling them they would have to keep doing it for three more sessions, with no recourse to the senior citizens' lift.

Twice in two overs, Ishant Sharma reminded them that an unplayable ball was always around the corner. First he forced du Plessis to remove his bottom hand hurriedly from a defensive jab, the ball lifting alarmingly off a length. Then he beat him with one that reversed away. The crowd grew more attentive. They roared a long continuous roar as Ishant ran in, grew silent when he released, and exhaled a collective 'ooh' when Amla blocked one that swerved in towards his off stump.

Then Amla stretched out to defend Mishra. The long front-foot stride and cushiony dead bat had been the bedrock of his innings. According to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, it was the 112th defensive shot he attempted. He had middled a fair number, edged a few, and been beaten on both edges. The data said he had been in control for 90 out of the previous 111 balls he had tried to block. The edges hadn't carried so far, but this ball was different, jumping from the surface, and it caught his bat high, near the shoulder, and popped to a leaping Kohli at gully.

India had broken through. Amla's 39 had consumed 167 balls.

Du Plessis, hero of Adelaide, was also on 39 when he faced Mishra's next over. Out came a rare short ball, and a chance for some runs. Du Plessis rocked back to pull. This time, the ball shot through at shin height, crept under his bat, and bowled him. He had faced 152 balls.

The end was imminent, and it came soon after tea, with Ashwin sending back the last four, one after another beaten in the air or by his deception off the pitch. A couple of years ago, a partnership such as the one between Amla and du Plessis might have frustrated Ashwin into trying something different and sending down a loose ball or two. A bad ball is a bad ball on any pitch, and South Africa's spinners had found this out over the first two days of the match. The Ashwin of 2015 is a different bowler, one of the best in the world. He never released the pressure, never stopped dangling down those dipping, fizzing offbreaks. It was only right that he was the man to end one of cricket's greatest runs.