The consummate series review

Three-Test series between top sides are a nonsense but India have given South Africa a great tussle and the fairest result prevailed as little could separate the two sides. But what would you have given to see a fourth Test at St George’s Park in Port Elizabeth and a fifth at the Wanderers in Johannesburg? This series was super but it really had the makings of a classic.

It seemed unfair that Mahendra Dhoni lost yet another toss in Centurion and, after a week of record rainfall, the Indians were sent in to bat and dismissed for 136 in just over a session. It was an unfriendly welcome to a cloudy South Africa and the Proteas won the first of three Tests by an innings and then some.

In Durban, Graeme Smith again won a tasty bowl-first toss. India struggled to a meagre 205 all out but wicked spells from Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh saw the hosts fold for 131 all out in just over a session on the second day. India were back in the series and went on to win that Boxing Day Test by 87 runs, albeit with some thanks to a handful of controversial umpiring decisions.

The honours were even when the sides arrived in the fairest Cape and the Newlands faithful couldn’t have wished for a more closely fought battle. Dhoni asked the hosts to bat first, bowled them out for 362 and then managed 364 themselves. Of course, Jacques Kallis and Sachin Tendulkar made first-innings centuries, both saving their sides from mediocre tallies.

The terrific sold-out crowds watched the sunshine on the glorious Table Mountain and every 10 minutes a train choofed its way between the Railway Stand and the brewery. It was as wonderful as it always is.

As it always does, the cricket played with our hearts – nearly even tore them out. South Africa were winning when India were 28 for two and then India were when it was 106 for two. But the Gods had decided that no side should win this match and although India were reeling at 280 for eight, they somehow managed a lead.

All the while the good people who love this beautiful cricket stage got drunk in the pavilion, sunburnt on the grass embankment and fought for shade in the President’s Pavilion. They danced in neon pink leotards, proudly wore fake Hashim Amla beards in 40-degree Celsius temperatures and hurled verbal abuse at the verbally abusive Shantha Sreesanth.

When South Africa collapsed to 130 for six as they went about setting a second-innings target the heartbreak was palpable. It was India’s game to lose and Jacques Kallis partnered his good mate Mark Boucher to try and inch the Proteas up to 200-odd. But Boucher had been in a slump of form and Kallis had sustained a rib injury that was so painful he could hardly walk.

No doubt full of painkillers and anaesthetics, Kallis struggled on. Grimacing with each upper-body movement, playing dead on the floor when he couldn’t stand, he seemed an unlikely hero to deliver his side from crisis. When he got up after five minutes motionless on his back receiving treatment, I was the first to shout as loud as I could: “Come on, Jacques!” Another voice followed mine and then another and then a thousand others as we all felt a part of his brave endeavour. Country before rationality: never mind your health, Jacques – stay in, score runs, we need you.

Cometh the hour and in the fashion of Smith at Sydney or Edgbaston, the Samson-like batsman delivered the most Herculean of efforts and somehow amassed an unbeaten and chanceless century as South Africa batted for far longer than they should have done had they had any realistic aspiration of winning this match. They were all out with the last ball of the day, posting an unattainable target off 340 runs in the last day.

Boucher, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel had been hopeless with the bat of late but between them they gave their side 115 runs and delivered the series away from the Indians’ grasp and to complete safety. That Smith didn’t have 10 overs at an exhausted and demoralised India on the fourth evening seemed criminal but that is the nature of Test cricket these days – ensure you 100 percent can’t lose before you try to win.

Ten overs with the new ball on day four would have meant 20 overs with a new one at the end of day five and things may have turned out very differently. Instead the Indians batted out a tame draw and again South Africa let their opposition off the hook. It may have appeared an injustice to such a good series but nobody likes to lose and nobody deserved to win.

For so many of us it just doesn’t get better than the Newlands Test. The excitement we feel between the end of the Durban Test and the end of this one can possibly be compared to that of an Indian bride in the week leading up to and then the five days of her arranged wedding: she waits in anticipation of who the winner will be and is then overwhelmed by the enormous party where she can’t remember the names of all the familiar people that gather.

Some guests are excited, others sad, but they all attend as a matter of duty and pride. The hardest to describe is the feeling she experiences at its ending as she walks away exhausted and confused – vaguely aware of everything that happened but unable to fully remember it all.

And what will happen next? Well, nothing for nine months and then South Africa play their next Test series against Australia and everyone who gives a damn will have something else exciting to look forward to.

Unlike a limited-overs game that ends and we go home and put it somewhere in the back of our minds – a Test match is a beast that does not sleep until hands shake. It doesn’t end until it ends. When we wake up at three in the morning and see Sehwag smashing boundaries, when we park our cars or leave the ground, when we go to the loo and hear an eruption that is audible four kilometres away, it is still on. They talk about an absorbing day of a Test match but what they mean is an absorbing day in a series of five absorbing days that don’t end until the last player leaves the field.

But it is all over now. The party is over and the guests can go home. They will be back next year though – just about all of them anyway. From the ice cream salesman who shouts, “A lolly to make you jolly” and can tell you who won every schoolboy fixture this season, to the old couples who are so proud of their season tickets, to the enthusiastic fan under the Oaks whose tee-shirt exclaimed, “Sex, Drugs and Boerewors Roll”. They will all be back and so will I.

This article appeared on Cricket365 following the 2010/11 Test series between South Africa and India, which was drawn 1-1.

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