Most South Africa cricketers might have expected to wake up yesterday morning to headlines praising their valiant batting effort in saving the first Test against India at the Wanderers on Sunday, but instead awoke to a heated debate over whether the hosts should have pushed on for a historic victory.
Set 458 to win on a wicket with variable bounce, the Proteas needed 16 runs from 19 balls at one stage, but eventually fell eight short, having abandoned their chase in the fear of losing their final three wickets and the match.
The Proteas ended the match on 450 for seven — the third-highest fourth-innings score in Test history — but played out successive maidens in the second and third last overs of the game to ensure they would not lose the match instead of securing the historic win.
It was a massive anti-climax on one of the great days of Test cricket, as South Africa went into the final day needing 320 runs to win with eight wickets remaining.
A win would have easily eclipsed the world record of 418 runs chased down by the West Indies against Australia in Antigua in 2003.
That Faf du Plessis (134) and A.B. de Villiers (103) — whose 205-run fifth-wicket stand contained some of the most skillful Test batting seen under extreme pressure — are being lauded for saving rather than winning the match has irked many.
After the loss in the morning session of Alviro Petersen (76) and Jacques Kallis (34) had put India on top, Du Plessis and De Villiers’ 205-run fifth wicket stand laid the platform for an extraordinary win.
The partnership was ended when De Villiers chopped an Ishant Sharma delivery onto his stumps with 56 runs still needed and the jitters started in the home dressing room as JP Duminy (five) was bowled by Mohammed Shami.
Vernon Philander (25 not out) and Du Plessis took South Africa to within 16 runs of the win before the latter was run out with a direct hit by Ajinkya Rahane as he attempted a quick single.
Playing “brave cricket” has become a mantra for South Africa in recent years and has helped them to back-to-back series wins in Australia, a series victory in England and to the top of the world Test rankings.
Yet as Philander and Dale Steyn shouldered arms for the final three overs to boos from the home supporters, many where left wondering where that bravado has gone.
It was only once the draw was secured that Steyn launched the ball over the boundary for six, an act that was perhaps ill-advised in that it incensed the crowd even more by not only taking South Africa agonizingly close to their target, but showing what was still possible on the wearing pitch.
Captain Graeme Smith, who was jeered at the post-match presentation, was quick to say that although Steyn and Philander were not acting on team orders, he supported them.
“Ultimately, the guys out in the middle did what they thought was in the best interest of the team,” Smith told reporters. “They’ve made great decisions over a period of time which have won cricket games for South Africa. I think that’s how we have got to No. 1, by trusting each other and trusting each others’ decision making.”
India admitted being surprised when South Africa took their foot off the pedal after playing themselves into a position of superiority, while several former Proteas players have also expressed astonishment.
Former South Africa Test captain Kepler Wessels said on his column on the SuperSport Web site that the team had more to gain than lose.
“In my view, the Proteas should have gone for the win while Steyn and Philander were at the crease,” Wessels said. “Looking at the situation objectively and without emotion there was far more to gain going for the win than settling for a draw. The team was chasing history by breaking the record for the highest run chase. After the efforts of De Villiers and Du Plessis they deserved it.”
Herschelle Gibbs took to Twitter to say that the win would have been greater than the famous “438” one-day international against Australia at the same venue in 2006.
Many South African netizens agreed and said they would rather have seen the side go for the win and lose than play out the draw.