By Bharath Ramaraj
Cricket is a game full of glorious uncertainties. A heart-stirring spell of bowling, an unbearably exhilarating catch with a superman-like leap or one sparkling piece of batsmanship can turn a near certain defeat to one of those improbable victories. In the first Test match played at the Wanderers, Johannesburg between India and South Africa, AB de Villiers and Faf Du Plessis with their regal stroke-play twinned with stoic defence waded through the rough terrains and took the hosts mightily close to chasing down a mammoth total of 458.
Let’s take a look at the some of the most successful run chases in the annals of Test cricket.
West Indies vs Australia , fourth Test St Johns, Antigua, 2003
The all-conquering Australian setup had already steamrolled the West Indies by winning the first three Tests of the series in a convincing fashion. They were expected to march their way to whitewashing the West Indies in the final match at Antigua. However, cricket can always throw up surprises that make heads roll and jaws drop in sheer disbelief.
On a slightly quicker wicket than what would generally see at the Old Antigua ground, West Indian tearaway pacer Jermaine Lawson blitzed through Australia’s famed top-order in the first innings. Australia immediately hit back by rolling out the West Indies for a mere 240 runs. Only Brian Lara, with his extravagant arc of his back-lift, stood up to Australia’s bowling.
As the wicket flattened out, Australian openers Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden bludgeoned the Windies attack minus the injured Lawson to accrue 417 runs.
The West Indies had a huge task on their hands, as they had to chase down a world-record breaking score of 418. At 165 for four with Lara being cleaned up by a fine googly from Stuart MacGill, it looked all over for the home team.
West Indies though convalesced from that precarious position by clawing their way back into the match, largely due to the gritty partnership between Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan. It started with Glenn McGrath having a go at Ramnaresh Sarwan. The spearhead of Australian pace attack asked the batsman, “How does Brian Lara’s d*** taste?”
Sarwan responded by saying, “Ask your wife.” The spat became ugly.
The cauldron of bubbling tensions got to the players as well. There was an ugly spat between speedster Glenn McGrath and Sarwan. Finally a cool, calm and collected approach towards batting by Omari Banks took the West Indies to what is still record breaking score.
Australia vs South Africa, first Test, WACA, Perth, 2008
The wicket at Western Australian Cricket Association (WACA) Ground was unusually flat in 2008. It was devoid of bounce and even those craters for which WACA was infamous for in 1980s and 90s didn’t develop as the match progressed. On the first day’s play itself, Australia scored runs at almost four runs an over.
Finally, it came down to South Africa needing 414 runs to notch up a victory. The ultra-defensive Neil MacKenzie didn’t last long. However, Graeme Smith went on an all out attack. He was well-supported by Hashim Amla. Those were the days when Amla wasn’t using the willow like a magic wand. But in spite of finding life difficult at the crease, he essayed a tenacious fifty. When Australia landed a few blows including taking the wickets of Smith and Jacques Kallis, there seemed to be a fissure opening up in the opposition ranks.
The charismatic stroke-maker AB de Villiers and Test debutant JP Duminy though, played with a touch of calm countenance to take South Africa to a fabulous win. The forlorn look on Australian captain Ricky Ponting’s face said it all.
West Indies vs India, Port of Spain, Trinidad, 1976
Both India and the West Indies went into the Test series on the back of some below par performances. The West Indies were annihilated by Australia 1-5. India struggled to get into their groove in New Zealand and had to taste defeat. A few would argue that atrocious umpiring didn’t help India’s cause in that series.
The West Indies won the first Test at Barbados and going into the third Test at Port of Spain, they led the series 1-0. On a track that had some bite in it for spinners, India went in with their tried and tested formula of playing a troika of spinners in Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, Bishan Singh Bedi and Srinivas Venkataraghavan. The West Indian think-tank though, had to change their strategy by playing three spinners in Albert Padmore, leg-spinner Imtiaz Ali, and left-arm spinner Raphick Jumadeen. In the hindsight, they perhaps made a glaring mistake by not playing to their strengths and left out Andy Roberts.
Initially, the emperor of Antigua, Viv Richards hogged the limelight by mercilessly walloping Indian spinners with shots that bordered on sheer arrogance. The West Indies with 359 runs on the scoreboard were in buoyant mood. From all accounts when he played those sumptuous strokes, volcano seemed to erupt from the Port of Spain pitch, scoring 177. The whispering death, Michael Holding on a slow track then proceeded to cause mass destruction by taking a six-for. The West Indies declared their second innings at 271 for six, leaving India to chase down a total of 403. Instead of flailing hopelessly when confronted with a task of huge proportions, India started to make a match out of it.
Sunil Gavaskar with his rather surprising counter-attacking methods gave the West Indies a few jitters. Mohinder Amarnath coming into bat at one drop launched one of those rearguard actions for which he was famous for. However, it was Gundappa Viswanath’s felicitous stroke-play and Brijesh Patel’s firebrand innings that finally sealed a historic win for the Indian team.
England vs Australia, Leeds, 1948
The all-conquering Australian setup in 1948 left the England team in a state of trance by chasing down a score of 404 in the fourth innings at Leeds. Don Bradman yet again proved to be a thorn in England’s flesh by remaining not out on 182. The Australian batting stalwart and left handed opening batsman Arthur Morris remained not out on 173.
On a track that assisted turn, England played a lone spinner and paid the price for it. In fact, Norman Yardley, England’s captain looked clueless on the final day, as Australia marched their way towards a magnificent victory. To make it worse for them, the usually reliable wicketkeeper Geoffrey Evans dropped three catches. In the first innings, it was Neil Harvey who shored up Australia’s batting with a knock of 112 full of precise timing and placement.
India vs England, Chennai, 2008
After Mumbai was engulfed by the ghastly terrorist attack, the England team had gone back home during the middle of a One-Day International (ODI) series due to safety reasons. However, the Kevin Pietersen-led England side showed great resolve to comeback to play the Test series.
In the first Test played at Chennai, England won the toss and elected to bat on a track that was certainly going to aid spinners. Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook, brick-by–brick, took England to a position of strength. Strauss by deftly placing Indian spinners through the minutest of gaps, square of the wicket on either side even, scored a fine hundred. To make it worse for the home side, England’s seamers and the debutant spinner Graeme Swann restricted India to just 241 to take a sizeable 80-run lead.
In the second innings, Strauss made another sublime hundred. England’s go-to man during crisis times and the ever reliable, Paul Collingwood too notched up a century by showcasing energetic stamina.
It all came down to India needing 387 runs for a famous victory. Virender Sehwag, known for living the life by the sword and die by the sword approach sent shivers down England’s spine by sledge hammering the seamers and spinners alike.
Once Sehwag got out, Indian batting legend Sachin Tendulkar essayed a masterful century that would be etched in one’s memory forever. In the end, India chased down a monster of a target with six wickets still in hand. It has to be said that Pietersen’s rather bizarre tactics of not bringing the field in left a lot to be desired. The columnist can’t remember Monty Panesar even touching the ball once while fielding at deep point in that innings.
South Africa vs India, Wanderers, Johannesburg, 2013 — What might have been?
The first Test played between India and South Africa could have very well joined the illustrious list. Chasing a monumental target of 458 runs on the final day’s play, South Africa came within eight runs of winning the game. It was a case of being so near yet so far for South Africa.
In fact, when AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis were batting, the Indian team was virtually down to prayers. Both batsmen looked well set to pass the litmus test with flying colours and take the team past the summit of the highest successful run chase ever in fourth innings.
As hearts pumped and nails were chomped in sheer excitement, South Africa inched ever closer to the target. It seemed like the coup de theatre act of de Villiers and du Plessis would indeed floor the Indian team into submission. The Indian team tried every trick in the trade including Ishant Sharma bowling on a fourth stump and sometimes even fifth stump channel. But the Zen masterly concentration prowess of both batsmen made sure that they kept the bowlers at bay.
When a team in the field is down in dumps, it takes nothing short of an inspiring feat to turn things around. Ajinkya Rahane did exactly that by running out du Plessis with a direct hit. Once Plessis got out, South Africa closed shop and unfortunately a game full of ebbs and flows ended in a draw. It was a bit of anti-climax to what was truly a remarkable game of cricket.
There have been other memorable fourth innings chases were the herculean efforts of batsmen have taken their team close to a glorious victory. In 1939, chasing a believe-it-or-not score of 696, John Edrich and Wally Hammond brought South Africa almost to their knees, before the game was drawn with England needing 42 more runs. In 2002, Nathan Astle’s bazooka shots gave England’s captain Nasser Hussain severe headaches, before they fell short by 99 runs. India in 1978 with a dash of bravery came within touching distance of the target set by Australia at WACA.
The Test at Wanderers turned out to be one of one those riveting contests that left everyone left gasping for breath. Even the cool as cucumber Rahul Dravid, while commentating, bounced on his toes and leapt in the air at the fall of a wicket.
(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)
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