The Kotla crowd rose to their feet to welcome AB de Villiers, who was coming to play his final innings of the series. Moments before, they had been celebrating Temba Bavuma’s dismissal but AB’s arrival shifted attention. A fascinating contest was about to unfold – world’s best batsman versus the No. 1 off-spinner. And Ravi Ashwin was making his bowling feel like music with the lightness of his fingers.
Ashwin has been the difference between the two sides in this series. He’s the man who intimidated and choked the Saffers with his spin-punch. But in Mohali and Nagpur, he had to break little sweat to tame his rivals. It was about hitting the right areas as pitch did the rest. Here, on a good surface, Ashwin knew he had to be patient. He unfurled his variations, knowing full well that the visitors were never going to chase an improbable 481 runs for victory in the fourth innings.
Dean Elgar’s scalp was meat and drink to the Indian offie. The left-hander attempted a drive to a flighted delivery and edged it to Ajinkya Rahane at slip. Then, South Africa resorted to deadpan defence – Hashim Amla taking 45 balls to get off the mark – and the real fight began.
Ashwin’s second spell post-lunch was tight without being spectacular. To be precise, Amla countered him very well; waiting for the ball and playing it late. Virat Kohli wisely decided for a bowling change before bringing Ashwin back as Tea approached. And it was when the latter started to get the drift.
As play resumed after the break, Ashwin tried a different variation. He bowled a leg break. Amla was outwitted, but unfortunately from India’s point of view, the inside edge went past Cheteshwar Pujara at short leg. A single resulted and it was now Bavuma’s turn to face the offie. Ashwin bowled a finger-spun off-break that had very little wrist involved. The ball drifted away in the air before coming in after pitching to knock the off stump out. Young Bavuma expected a bigger turn but was done in by Ashwin’s guile. Excellent!
AB checked in and Ashwin teased him with the one that went straight through. The South African master pulled his bat out of the line at the last moment. In his next over, Ashwin bowled another leg break and squared up AB in his crease. But soft hands ensured the leading edge drop safely. It was a fascinating contest – Test cricket at its best. Ashwin figures in his third spell read: 7-4-6-1. But those were arid numbers that didn’t fully capture his brilliance. No wonder that Sir Neville Cardus had issues with scoreboard…
Rahane was the standout performer on Day Four, becoming the fifth Indian after Vijay Hazare, Sunil Gavaskar, Rahul Dravid and Virat Kohli to score centuries in each innings of a Test match. A batting elite in the making, the 27-year-old moved into an elite club as Kotla witnessed another milestone. But it was Ashwin’s craft and South Africa’s fight that lit up the show.
At stumps, South Africa were 72/2 and they consumed 72 overs to score those runs. Amla has played 207 balls for his 23 not out, while AB was unbeaten on 11 off 91. South Africa have to play out three more sessions to save this Test. They’ve to play out of their skin to salvage pride. All depends on how they negotiate a master craftsman who is in the form of his life.