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Virat Kohli and his men held the beautiful black-and-gold trophy aloft, having won the Delhi Test match and the series. South Africa held their heads high, despite the 3-0 scoreline. The sizeable crowd that turned up on a cold, foggy day at the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium went home gratified, having seen their team prevail in what was an utterly absorbing game of Test cricket. In fact, at times on the fourth and fifth days — and it was the first completed match of this series that saw the fourth and fifth days — it felt like more than a game of cricket.
Over after over, session after session, India tried to provoke the South Africans, attacking them with ball and harassing them with words. There was physical violence as well. Bowling at a hostile pace, Umesh Yadav got the ball to reverse and viciously shoot up off a deteriorating pitch. There were at least three occasions when the ball took off from a length and came in sharply, hitting AB de Villiers flush on the gloves. He grimaced in pain, the physio came and inspected his battered finger, and applied magic spray.
De Villiers went back to the crease and patted the next ball dead. Each time.
It felt more than a game of cricket because what we saw in the Gandhi-Mandela Freedom series, it was a befitting display of non-violent batting by the South Africans. Cricket’s version of the Civil Disobedience Movement. When one Protea would perish in the course of their epic struggle to save the Test, as Hashim Amla did on Monday morning, another equally determined batsman would come to replace him. Faf du Plessis taking 50 balls to open his account is a case in point. It was longer than what his captain (46 balls) and de Villiers (31) spent on zero.
One could ask what skill does dead-batting take. The answer is: it must, for even Amla couldn’t keep on doing it on Day 5. In fact, while South Africa’s first five wickets ate up 138 overs, the final five lasted less than five. It requires tremendous mental strength. For a batsman who is just looking to defend is up against the bowler, and his own self.
“Nobody wants to block everything. You want to score runs,” Amla later said. “The need of the time was to try and bat as long as we can. To try and take the risky shots out of the equation. It is quite difficult to block full tosses and half-volleys. It is quite unnatural for batting.”
Jadeja vs Amla/de Villiers
To say that South Africa’s task was onerous would be an understatement. Yes, they had played out 72 overs the previous day, but they needed to last another 90. Pressing for a 3-0, Kohli threw the kitchen sink. Ravichandran Ashwin bowled off-breaks, leg-breaks and carrom balls. When over the wicket didn’t work, he switched to bowling from around the wicket. When that didn’t work either, he threatened to bowl left-arm orthodox at one stage as he started from around and bisected the umpire and the stumps to come over. Mercifully, it was an offspinner.
It was Ravindra Jadeja who gave India the big breakthrough. Unlike Ashwin, Jadeja bowled mostly within himself, pinging the ball pretty much in the same area with subtle variations. It was the mirror opposite of South Africa’s forward-defensive approach. Were AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla to do the same thing with the ball which they did with the bat, they would have bowled like Jadeja. The stand-offish nature of Jadeja vs Amla/de Villiers was such that when the left-arm spinner bowled, it was difficult to say who was chipping away at whom, and who would blink first.
The answer came on the 77th ball of the day. Jadeja got one to drift in from around the wicket and land on the middle-stump line. As he had done all day yesterday and this morning, Amla strode forward to reach the pitch of the ball. He thought he had covered the line. But it was a fraction short and gripped and turned just enough to beat the edge and knock back his off-stump. After 244-balls that produced 25 runs, Amla’s marathon vigil ended.
India celebrated as if they had won the match. Virat Kohli looked like he would scream his guts out. The crowd at the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium roared in unison. Amla gathered himself and walked back vanquished. He was trolled on social media yesterday for his blockathon. Here, he received the spectators’ applause for his effort.
Du Plessis walked out. One of South Africa’s big three, he has had a wretched one month, even by South Africa’s standards. His run of scores in the Test series read: 1,0,0,10,39,0. In the previous innings, he had played what was perhaps the most mindless shot of the series, and this series has seen many. On pair here, du Plessis’s first instinct, then, would have been to take a single — steal it somehow and avoid the embarrassment all Test batsmen dread. But for the Saffers, there was no individual pride to play for or personal ignominy to avoid on Monday. And du Plessis exemplified it by staying put on nought longer than any batsman had in this match. But Jadeja would end du Plessis’s stoic defence too with an armer that caught that batman plumb.
Yadav’s last blow
It was midway into the second session, and only AB remained between a draw and another defeat. But with the light fading and his partners falling one by one to a resurgent Ashwin and Yadav, de Villiers succumbed, too. Ashwin got one to rise from the rough and climb on him and kiss his gloves on way to leg-slip.
AB de Villiers. He of the 31-ball ODI century. He played 297 balls here. In those balls, at his fastest pace, he could have scored 958 runs. He made 43 of the most unselfish runs here.
“When it is done, you kind of appreciate the determination shown as AB (de Villiers) was a prime example. Try and knuckle down for the team’s sake and be unselfish,” Amla later said about the batsman who walked back to a standing ovation from the crowd, and both the dressing rooms.
The end came quickly. Yadav broke — actually broke — Kyle Abbott’s leg stump and got Dane Piedt to edge to a diving Wriddhiman Saha. Ashwin disturbed Morne Morkel’s timber to complete a 337-run win. But its significance was not in the margin. Its importance was that the win in Delhi showed India don’t need devilish turners. They can compete with, and beat the best in the world, even on a level playing field.
As a result of the 3-0 series win, India climbed to No.2 in the Test rankings. Ashwin ended with five wickets in the match and a whopping 31 in the series, more than many batsmen’s aggregate in the series. This performance came during a time of some anxious moments as his parents were stuck in the deluge in Chennai. “Relatives of some of our players were stranded because of this. And despite that they came out and performed admirably here,” said Kohli after the match.
It was heroic show, then, from both the teams in this Test. One that lifted this series out of the morass of mediocrity.