Ryan Harris battled through his knee to help Australia seal the series © Getty Images
Ryan Harris battled through his knee injury to help Australia seal the series © Getty Images

One of the most fiercely contested Test series ended at Newlands on March 6, 2014. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a pulsating day that ended in one of the most intense finishes in the history of the sport.

The greatest Tests in history have not necessarily been about sudden rushes of adrenaline: at times they have been about the complete lack of it. Batsmen get metamorphosed into single-minded machines with the sole intention of surviving over after over and save the Test; bowlers toil along relentlessly to wear down the patience of the batsmen and get to the tail; the hawks around the bat prowl closer and closer to the bat as the match approaches to a close; and the nerves of the umpires and fans are tested under the pressure of the most severe intensity.

Today was one such day. South Africa were reeling at 15 for 3 in 6 overs (of the ones dismissed was Graeme Smith, the man they had always looked to in the fourth innings of Tests) when AB de Villiers had walked out to join Hashim Amla; the pair put up a splendid display of batsmanship. Amla brought out his “other” self from Eden Gardens 2009-10, while de Villiers summoned his alter ego from Adelaide Oval 2012-13.

Together they saw off the Australians for over 30 overs when James Pattinson had struck Amla on the pads. Amla’s 41 was not enough, but it was a start to what was about to follow. Victory was out of the question now. When de Villiers returned to the pavilion at stumps with night-watchman Kyle Abbott in tow, there was only one question being asked across the cricket fraternity: will the others be able to hold out for a day?

But Abbott batted; and batted; and batted; and batted. He blocked; he left; and whatever he did, there was no doubt about his intent. He was out there to stay and to postpone the advent of Faf du Plessis and JP Duminy to the crease by as much as possible: they had to move over his corpse to win him over.

But the Australians toiled: Ryan Harris, with a loose bone in his knee; Mitchell Johnson, who had a slight hamstring niggle in the first innings; Pattinson, ever alert to capitalise on the slightest error; Nathan Lyon, the perfect foil to support the troika of seamers; and Shane Watson, to bring up the rear.

It took the Australians 89 balls to dismiss Abbott: once again it was Pattinson; Michael Clarke had summoned him for a fresh spell; the ball pitched on a length; Abbott left the ball, erring a tad in judgement; the ball reverse-swung, ever so slightly, and hit the timber.

Vernon Philander played with guts and determination on the final day at Cape Town of the Test against Australia © Getty Images
Vernon Philander played with guts and determination on the final day at Cape Town against Australia © Getty Images

There was still du Plessis, though: du Plessis and de Villiers, de Villiers and du Plessis; old friends who had put on those epic fourth-innings stands at Adelaide Oval and New Wanderers that will rank among the best in history. Surely he can bat out?

The greatest Tests in history have not necessarily been about sudden rushes of adrenaline: at times they have been about the complete lack of it

They went to lunch five wickets down, and the de Villiers-du Plessis grind continued. The Australians knew they had to fell one of the pair; a victory would be impossible if the two could not be separated. And then, Harris, the injured Harris, the out-of-form Harris, the oft-overlooked Harris struck: he had been bowling on the corridor, had kept a nagging line and length, and waited. And waited. And waited. Till de Villiers edged one to Brad Haddin. And Newlands sunk into grief.

But wait, they said: we still have Duminy! “Wasn’t he the man who had pulled things around when we had usurped Australia’s throne?” they thought. And Duminy responded, and how! He hung around with du Plessis, their own du Plessis, du Plessis who could pull around miracles. And Newlands hoped.

An hour passed. A desperate Clarke turned to Steve Smith. Smith ran in and bowled one on a perfect line and length; the ball pitched on leg-stump and did not turn as much as du Plessis would have thought it would; eleven Australians on the field went up in a vociferous appeal; as did the reserves and support staff; and the thousands of fans staying up late to watch; and du Plessis’s resistance came to an end.

Out walked Vernon Philander, gum-chewing jaws firm in determination, eyes narrowed with a purpose. His role was cut out: he simply needed to hang around with Duminy. 221 balls to go in the match, they thought. Can Big Phil do it for them?

The Australians knew Philander can bat, and he responded: there was a moment’s lapse of concentration when Philander top-edged one off Johnson and the ball soared over Haddin’s head for six. The kids applauded: the supporters cast a stern glance at them. And Philander mellowed down.

On came Pattinson and hit Philander on the ribs; he swung one that almost bowled Philander through the gate; and when Smith erred, Duminy dispatched him for three boundaries in an over to ease off some tension. Philander swiped hard and somehow connected as Pattinson’s ball raced to cover; Pattinson responded with a beamer. Hit on the finger. Apologies all around. All was well.

Still 120 balls left, Johnson to Duminy, this partnership was certain to see them through, Johnson pitched one down the leg-side, Duminy leg-glanced it, should be a single, but wait! What was Lyon doing there at leg-slip? What was all this celebration about? Why could you not just let it go, JP? Why did you have to play that shot? Didn’t you know Dale Steyn was injured?

But hello, Steyn had already walked out. He was there with Duminy that day. Maybe they would bat it out for their captain. Maybe they won’t. But that ogre Johnson steams in; he bounces; the ball hit Philander on the shoulder; and THE UMPIRE RULES HIM OUT! The Australians celebrated, but wait, Philander had reviewed: the ball had caressed the thumb, but the gloves had broken off from the bat at the time of contact.

Philander survives; Clarke and Steyn got into a verbal barrage; and thus began mandatory overs. Harris. Pattinson. Harris. Pattinson. How long could Harris’ knees survive? Clarke took him off and summoned Lyon, then Watson. He got Johnson back for that one final burst.

Five more overs; Clarke replaced Watson with Harris; but won’t those knees need to undergo a surgery? Burly Harris, hefty Harris, indomitable Harris ran in, and somehow conjured a yorker; the ball took the inside knee and crashed into the off-stump.

And then, there was Morne Morkel, out to survive 29 balls. The first one, on leg-stump, is negotiated safely. 28 more. Then Harris hustled up and unleashed another peach: the ball swung absurdly, beat Morkel’s bat, and crashed into the stumps. It was all over! The Australians huddled! The men at Newlands were left dejected, but still they applauded the champions off the ground.

They had, after all, batted out of their skins for Smithsy this one final time. As they disappeared into the pavilion, so did Smith: he won’t appear again. The Sun would rise tomorrow, and South Africa will fight — the way they always have — in a fresh battle. Under some other captain. It will never be the same.

So long, Smith. Your champions almost pulled it off. Again.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)