Shikhar Dhawan had every reason to feel aggrieved,if not shocked. In his head,the left-handed opener had after all done nothing wrong. He had stepped down to a Robin Peterson delivery,which was given air,and whipped it with all his might over mid-wicket. Faf du Plessis had no business coming in its way. Not in the fashion he did anyway,his feet in the air,body convoluted,and the right hand where the left should have been.
Eventually he plucked the ball from thin air like he would an apple from a tree. That is before landing hard but with the ball crucially in his grasp. While du Plessis was engulfed by his equally shocked teammates,Dhawan just stood there in disbelief.
Trevor Penney,Indias fielding coach,perhaps described the du Plessis special the best when he said,It looked like he had been shot. Thats how quickly it all happened-in the blink of an eye. The arduous work that Dhawan had put in for 120 minutes had just been stolen away from him in a freak moment.
In those two hours,Dhawan had waded through the rough sea leaden with obstacles and come away unscathed. Battered and bruised but still fighting and kicking. And yet,he had perished in shallow waters with the shore within reach.
Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander had tested every intricate aspect of his technique. On many occasions the left-handed opener had looked out of sorts and not competent enough to combat the enquiry. But still he had survived. Survived long enough,86 deliveries in fact,of some of the most testing new-ball bowling youll ever see. Now,the spinners were on. The light was fading quickly. It seemed only a matter of time before the umpires bring the days play to a close. And courtesy du Plessiss outstretched right-hand,Dhawan was on his way for probably the most difficult 19 runs hes scored in Test cricket so far.
His dismissal also came at a crucial juncture as far as Indias second innings was concerned. It reduced the visitors to 53/2,still 113 runs adrift. Murali Vijay had fallen earlier in the afternoon,snared by Philanders probing line and seam movement. Fortunately for the Indians,there were no more heartaches to deal with as Cheteshwar Pujara,not out on 32,and Virat Kohli ensured safe passage to stumps,the final score reading 68/2. On Monday,the final one of the largely truncated tour,Mahendra Singh Dhoni & Cos first target will be scoring the next 98 runs and ensuring that South Africa will bat again.
Then they might well have to bat through the rest of Day Five to ensure that the Indians leave these shores with a 0-0 result and their dignity on foreign soil all but restored. Starting of course with an encore performance from Kohli and Pujara of what they produced at the Wanderers last week.
They will also have to contend with a pumped-up South African attack on a Day Five pitch at Kingsmead that has already shown signs of breaking up one on which uneven bounce will bring Morne Morkel into play while the cracks and indentations will allow the likes of Philander and Steyn to move the ball.
Like they did on Sunday. The South Africans were always expected to come out hard against the Indian top-order after their batsmen had buoyed them up by putting 500 on the board the charge led by Jacques Kallis 45th Test ton. This was after all the first time in the series that Steyn & Co were on the prowl with their teams nose in front.
Play and miss
And it was a working over of the highest quality. The first boundary of Dhawans knock came off the 33rd ball he faced. Off the previous 32,he had scored only three runs. Among those were a multitude of plays and misses. Philander in particular kept going past Dhawans outside-edge. While the opener did shoulder arms to nine deliveries successfully,he also left his bat hanging outside the off-stump on five occasions-three off Philander himself-unsure of what the ball was doing. Steyn had tested him on the back-foot like he has done throughout the series and also gotten one to swerve away from Dhawan.
This was the first time he had lasted for over 50 deliveries on tour. It was also probably his most tumultuous stay. For the early half of his innings,Dhawan had batted like his life depended on it. Then he had tackled the spinners with comfort and ease before the fateful flick in the direction of du Plessis.
Not an easy ride
Pujaras stay too wasnt an easy ride but like always the No.3 stuck to his guns,left with composure and command and eventually looked a lot more settled than Dhawan. By the end of the day,he was into his groove,playing eloquent shots and mixing them with his stubborn defence. India will require a lot more of that,along with Kohlis steadfast approach.
They will also be well served by keeping the ball as far away from du Plessis.