At a venue rapidly becoming India’s favourite venue in this country, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men conjured a most astonishing series-levelling triumph on Saturday night, their thrilling one-run victory keeping the five-match series alive and reigniting the debate over South Africa’s strength of mind in tense finishes.
The Wanderers was quite the Bullring as upwards of 25,000 people watched their favourite sons self-destruct in utter disbelief. For the first two-thirds of their chase of India’s modest 190, South Africa were on cruise mode, well served by Graeme Smith. The skipper’s dismissal, leaving South Africa needing 39 in 107 deliveries with five wickets standing, triggered an incredible passage of play during which India stepped up to the plate, and the hosts fell victim to their own mental frailties.
Inasmuch as South Africa did justice to the tag of ‘chokers’ that has accompanied them for so long now, India must take great pride for the manner in which they kept coming at the hosts. The modest nature of the target meant Dhoni had to attack more than he usually likes to do; towards that end, he was helped immensely by the discipline of the bowling unit, in which man of the match Munaf Patel reaped the most handsome dividends but Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra weren’t too far behind.
Harbhajan has been guilty at times of being too conservative, his primary objective seemingly more on run-restriction than wicket-taking. Dhoni has seldom used him in the Power Plays but on Saturday, his hand was forced because Nehra began poorly. The off-spinner responded in admirable fashion. The propensity to fire the ball in was conspicuously absent; instead, he bowled to take wickets.
Slower through the air, he procured just enough turn to trouble the batsmen. He wasn’t afraid to flight the ball, his impeccable control planting seeds of doubt in the crease-tied, uncertain batting unit. At the first hint of an opening, Harbhajan can suddenly transform into a dangerous package. He suffered from lack of wickets because the Proteas were desperate to just hang in and survive; on another day, he will reap commensurate reward.
Patel vindicated Dhoni’s trust in him with a superb exhibition of seam bowling marked by subtle variations in pace. Patel’s greatest strength is the wicket-to-wicket line he maintains. He gets the ball to nip around just a little bit, and towards the end, serves up a plethora of different slower deliveries that batsmen new to the crease find difficult to pick, and therefore, negotiate.
Entrusted with the new ball, he produced a beauty to get rid of Hashim Amla. A well-disguised slower delivery elicited a fatal inside edge from Smith off the first delivery of the batting Power Play, and when Dhoni turned to him with four required for victory, Patel delivered in style with two superb slower ones. He was perhaps a touch fortunate that both those deliveries were struck aerially to fielders in the point region, but on a day when he carried the bowling quite beautifully, that luck was perhaps no more than was his due.
Perhaps now, the merits of looking to attack with the resources at his command will dawn on Dhoni. Modern-day captains have opted to sit back in the middle overs and allow the game to drift. The paucity of runs on the board meant Dhoni was denied that luxury. By crowding the infield and not conceding easy, unhurried singles, the skipper dared the South Africans; the batsmen succumbed to the pressure sensationally to snatch a heart-breaking loss when the finish line was so invitingly close.
The reference to the ‘C’ word isn’t looked upon kindly by the South African establishment, which bristles at suggestions that under pressure, the team tends to crumble dramatically. Publicly, the word ‘choke’ is seldom used, not even by a battle-hardened media which has been exposed to several such capitulations in crunch situations by the national team.
In their heart of hearts, though, the South Africans will realise that this was as much them losing the match as India winning it. A sequence of exceptionally poor decision-making with the bat gifted India only their fourth victory over the Proteas in 22 attempts in this country, and the first in more than nine years. If India can clean up their batting act, and that’s a big if, they may not have to wait as long for an encore.