It was a Test match that deserved to be remembered for all the right reasons - masterful batting, inspired spells with the ball and some outstanding catches. Instead, the rain, and a match referee who threw the book - and then some - at India, intervened to cast a pall over St George's Park. At the end of it all, with the weather gods smiling down upon them, India dug deep to walk away with heads held high.
Shaun Pollock's declaration left India with four sessions to bat out. When they lost Shiv Sunder Das in the very first over, the match - and series - appeared to be slipping out of reach. But in Rahul Dravid and Deep Dasgupta, they found the unlikeliest of rescue double acts. Dravid, stylish and technically correct, had done nothing in his previous three innings, falling each time to Pollock. Dasgupta, the artisan in a line-up of artists, was supposed to be the lamb to the slaughter. Instead, he took his job of seeing the shine off the new ball very seriously indeed. By the time South Africa finally saw the back of him, late on the fifth evening, India were well on their way to the draw that would keep the series alive.
Dasgupta's 281-ball 63 was an object lesson in self-restraint and concentration that out-Kallised Jacques - the South African had stonewalled his way to 89 off 229 in the second innings. Dravid's 87 may have been more pleasing to the eye but it was Dasgupta's obduracy that had Pollock almost tearing his flame-red hair out in frustration. One incident encapsulated the Dasgupta approach well. Late on the fifth afternoon, with the match almost saved, Pollock surprised him with a bouncer. Dasgupta momentarily took his eyes off the ball, which slammed into his bat handle before looping to safety short of cover. His response was to put his head down and berate himself fiercely. He may only be starting out, but the signs are clear that India have finally discovered a blue-collar Test batsman, determined to make the best use of his limited talent.
Pollock's angst was understandable given the manner in which South Africa dominated three-quarters of the match. Sent in to bat on a green top, his team were inspired by Herschelle Gibbs's magic carpet ride to 196. A fired-up Javagal Srinath triggered a mid-innings haemorrhage, but Mark Boucher and Gibbs gave their team the kiss of life that got them to 362.
With runs on the board, Pollock tore into the Indians like a cold Easterly. Shiv Sunder Das got a poor leg-before decision - the inside edge could be heard in Jo'burg - and Sachin Tendulkar was a victim of his own impetuosity. The others had few excuses and the innings went downhill at freestyle skiing speed. Then VVS Laxman stepped in and filled the breach. India's batting limousine had restricted himself to short and breezy rides in the first Test. This time, we got the long, smooth journey. The gorgeous strokes on either side of the wicket were very much in evidence, but also present was a resolve to steer the team to safety. He found an ally in Anil Kumble, who gave glimpses of a long-forgotten batting ability. Their 80-run association saw India ease past the follow-on target.
Leading by a massive 161, and with rumours of ill winds and rain brewing, South Africa were pushed onto the back foot by Srinath. Kallis rebuffed the Indian charge - aided by Dippenaar, Klusener and Pollock - but the inclement weather on the fourth and fifth days meant that India were always in with a chance. If the rains weren't incentive enough, Mike Denness's perceived injustices on the final morning gave them just the spur they needed. The tiger is India's national animal and sometimes you can't help but wonder whether the cricket team takes that to heart. They always look more dangerous when wounded and pushed into a corner.
Of lifted seams
The muck started to seep out on the fourth day; by the fifth morning, it had well and truly hit the fan. In the end, no one was left with more dirt on his face than the ICC match referee, and former England captain, Mike Denness. His first cut was the deepest - accusing Sachin Tendulkar of ball-tampering. The television pictures and replays that Denness viewed were inconclusive to say the very least but they did show Tendulkar using his nail on the seam. It must be mentioned, though, that the ball at that stage was just 19 overs old: it would have taken nails of reinforced Keratin to lift the stitching on it.
It was an incredibly naïve thing for India's most senior player to do, even if he was not trying to alter the condition of the ball. Cricket's laws on the issue are clear and Tendulkar should have gone to the umpire if he found dirt in seam. All the same, his crime didn't deserve the punishment Denness handed out.
But Denness was far from finished. Dasgupta, Harbhajan Singh and Virender Sehwag were pulled up for excessive appealing, while Sehwag and Das were put in the dock for dissent and for charging the umpire. Fines and suspended sentences were handed out like confetti and Sehwag found himself frozen out of the frame for the third Test. The Indians have to look within and acknowledge their indiscretions, but what incensed them was the partisan nature of Denness's judgment. Some of Pollock's appeals could have shattered glass a la Caruso, while the verbals aimed at the Indian batsmen by Hayward and Kallis might have made the average tar blanch.
The transformation from carthorse in the one-day series to pace thoroughbred in the Tests couldn't have come at a better time for Srinath. For a while now, there have been doubts about his ability to spearhead the attack. But at St George's Park he bowled with the aggression and control that he last displayed in South Africa over four years ago. At a lively pace, he moved the ball around and kept it up to the bat, slipping in the odd quick bouncer to discourage the batsmen from coming forward. On a track loaded in favour of the fast men, he fought a lonely fight, with Ajit Agarkar unable to find any consistency at the other end. Match figures of 8 for 104 suggest that reports of his eclipse are greatly exaggerated.
The brass band was much-hyped before the game. Like many musical acts across the globe, their talents turned out to be rather limited. Had they been around in Asterix's day, they would have been good company for Cacofonix. As it was, their loud and unsynchronised renditions of teenybopper love songs didn't quite gel with Nantie Hayward trying to knock Dasgupta's block off.