Suddenly there was a little spike on the big screen. It had started off as a hopeful appeal by an eager-to-contribute substitute wicketkeeper. But it had since emerged that Dinesh Karthik was going to be right with his DRS call for a second time in a cameo appearance – he had been overruled earlier by his excitable captain. While the third umpire “rocked and rolled” the footage for confirmation, members of the Indian had lined up by the stumps at the non-striker’s end, six pair of hands vying for the three stumps on offer. Then the decision flashed on the screen, Hardik Pandya grabbed the first stump, Ishant Sharma took another.
Kohli meanwhile took off from the other end, trying to make sense of the turnaround he’d overseen, his pace quickening until he eventually stopped near the square-leg umpire, where he puffed his cheeks and yelled “come on!” before proceeding to do a dab. A collective hysteria had taken hold of the members of the Indian cricket team at the famous Wanderers.
Collectively and individually, India stepped in from the cold after Tea on the fourth day of this (in)famous Test match. It turned out, that their formula was simple. All they had to do to beat South Africa was to hang in with them in the fight, trade blow for blow, before harassing them into a ninety-minute meltdown. They’d received a massive double fillip just before Tea when the magnificent Hashim Amla, who for the second time on a minefield of a surface, got out to a leg-stump half volley. Then in a few extra minutes before Tea, possible only because of the rain-induced revised timings, AB de Villiers nicked one to gully off Jasprit Bumrah.
After all the noise around the pitch and the ramifications around it, the world’s top-two sides joined hands on the fourth day to provide a great advert for Test cricket. And even the pitch played along in this noble endeavour of theirs by suddenly becoming slightly docile after a little heavy roller usage.
A 13,000-strong Saturday crowd at the Wanderers helped show off the iconic stadium’s acoustics. There was nervous rumble before the day’s play as Amla and Dean Elgar slowly began chipping away at the target in the first session. When they walked out undefeated at the end of it, there was a significant roar of whitewash belief.
India were surprised by the reduced efficacy of the pitch but had been guilty of bowling too short themselves. But the bowling attack was led here by Ishant, a fast bowler at the heart of many great Indian victories – including Perth 2008 and Lord’s 2014. He produced another performance of thrillingly sustained energy and skill, constantly keeping the batsmen rooted to the crease with his fuller lengths and embodying the pure exhilaration of Kohli’s no-inch-given cricket.
Despite India’s little comeback, South Africa still walked to Tea fairly comfortable at 136 for 3. After everything he’d gone through the previous evening, Elgar was slowly carving his name into the annals of great fourth-innings knocks. South Africa needed 105 runs and India, seven wickets.
In a Test of may subplots and on a pitch that occasionally threatened to knock heads off, India kept theirs post Tea. Two minutes past 4PM, the Johannesburg surface played a little trick and helped Ishant create one of the images of the game. He nipped a delivery sharply back into Faf du Plessis and breached through the South African captain’s defence. As the stumps lay spread-eagled, Ishant bellowed. It was a just reward for a tireless worker, who due to a weird selection policy seldom got to play on wickets with assistance like these.
Quinton de Kock then waited two full overs from the non-strikers’ and when he eventually got his turn to face a ball, failed to move his feet quickly enough to react to a Bumrah delivery straightening from around the wicket and was adjudged LBW. As de Kock walked off, Kohli ran past him with a mock finger-to-the-lips celebration. Thousands of kilometres away, in Bengaluru, a few wealthy men with a paddle were uniting the two in an IPL franchise. But this was Test cricket, country vs country, 1 versus 2, and that counted for so much more.
“There is a lot of mutual respect. The rivalry stays on the pitch,” Kohli would say later. “We don’t see anyone talking ill about the other team, they give credit to us when we do well and we give credit to them when they do well. Lot of these guys play with us in the IPL as well so we know them really well also. But when you step out as a team there is no friendships there, there is only competition, but when you step off it they are lovely guys and we have no issues at all, the teams know each other really well. And it is exciting for world cricket and that’s why this win was important for us also because we are the No. 1 side in the world and we played like that today. So given tough competition from the No. 2 side in their own conditions, we showed character and I am sure the public enjoyed watching this series as well.”
The Wanderers began to resonate to a different tune then. Once Ishant and Bumrah had blasted out an opening, Mohammed Shami reverse swung his way to a five-fer. In exactly 73 minutes since they’d been 144 for 3, South Africa crashed and burned to 177 all-out, with a bruised Elgar cutting a forlorn figure as teams shook each other’s hands.
In 2006 they ran around pouring soft drinks over each other. In 2010 at Durban, the celebrations were more understated given the win had come under the equanimous MS Dhoni. Here, after the initial release, there were enthusiastic yelps, hugs, fist bumps, dabs and other new-age celebrations. Deep down, they appeared to be reflecting on the lost chances at Cape Town and Centurion. Yet, individually. this win was right up there with Lord’s 2014, Perth 2008, Jamaica 2006, Leeds 2002 and other great Indian victories on the road. Because it had come in conditions that were heavily skewed against them given the context of the series at the start of this dead-rubber Test.
No doubt England will wonder if this level of pace-fury could be replicated in six months, but India might just have given themselves, in the words of a Kohli, a “massive milestone”. It seems possible. Not many have a bowling attack to take all 60 wickets on an away tour. Not many have a batting line-up that is both skillful and ridiculously brave to withstand and counter such hostile conditions. If India can make getting into their irresistible red zone with bat and ball a routine, they’ll have reason to believe that Wanderers 2018 will mark the beginning of a happy habit.