To commence the 264th ball of the day, all of which had gone wicketless thus far, Ishant Sharma swayed his hair back at the top of his run-up and charged in towards the batsman, Hashim Amla. For exactly three hours and 59 minutes, Amla had focussed on every ball releasing from the hands of the Indian bowlers and for three hours and 59 minutes, he had more than just survived. Amla, along with a human version of the word stoic in Dean Elgar, had taken the momentum -- and all but taken the match too -- away from the weary Indians. And now, as the clock marked the completion of four hours of Amla’s special innings, Sharma pitched the ball short of a length and outside Amla’s off stump, which he swished at.
The ball caught a nick of Amla’s bat and screeched towards first slip, Cheteshwar Pujara. Had Pujara been standing a foot ahead, the ball would’ve nestled into his cupped palms. But as it happened, the ball fell tantalisingly in front of him and captain Virat Kohli, stationed at mid-on, slapped his cap against his thigh in disgust. For a majority of the first two sessions on Saturday, such was India’s day.
After being in complete control of the Johannesburg Test until the previous evening, where play was halted due to safety concerns for the batsmen, Kohli’s fast bowlers toiled all day on Day Four on the same pitch and received no purchase. So much so that Amla and Elgar, not the quickest scorers of runs in the world, had brought South Africa to within 117 runs of victory, with all nine wickets that they had begun this day with intact.
Sharma, running on fumes now, began the 265th ball of this wicketless day. At this point, a few minutes before the tea break on Day Four and with South Africa’s score on 124/1, some Indian families had even begun streaming out of the stadium's turnstiles and on to Corlett Drive. Sharma’s delivery pitched on middle and drifted towards Amla’s pads, and the batsman flicked it towards midwicket, a shot that has earned him his bread, butter and a mansion in Durban. Yet, incredibly, the shot squirted up and towards to the man positioned quite recently in this very path. And Hardik Pandya simply doesn’t drop catches. So Amla exited the scene, out for a crafty 52.
Through the literal and proverbial cloud of gloom that had hung over the Wanderers all day long, a faintest ray of light shone on the Indian team. Still, the task of them completing a turnaround seemed a stretch too far for all those still seated beyond the boundary rope – the public and the press. Kohli, however, didn't stop believing and as he revealed during the press conference later, he and his team-mates don’t give a hoot about what anybody outside their dressing room thinks. And his team-mates, in this case, especially his bowlers, believed they could still win.
“I don’t think like people on the outside,” Kohli said. “For me it is very important to have belief in the team and all the time I was thinking if we were in this position and we lose a wicket it suddenly makes things very difficult for the people coming in to bat.” He was right, of course, and not just because he was speaking with the help of hindsight. This is what Kohli and his bowlers truly believed, even as AB de Villiers walked in to bat -- just the right man for SA in this situation; a man who could quite easily take the attack to India and knock off the remaining runs in a jiffy.
De Villiers, though, was out even before he could get his eyes in. Those pupils surely weren’t wide enough when Jaspirt Bumrah bowled him a back of a length ball for AB poked at it and a thick edge was latched by Ajinkya Rahane at gully. This was how the game broke for tea, with India 7 wickets away from one of their greatest overseas wins and South Africa 105 runs from ensuring that India's trend of getting beaten where it matters most continues. And Faf du Plessis, South Africa’s captain and a man who has made batting big in the fourth innings of a Test match his signature, was still around. As was Elgar, an object as unmovable as the wrought iron awnings of Wanderers.
Elgar would remain unmoved. But just about everyone else, the Indians shook off with ease. “(Once) they lost a couple of wickets the guys coming in were always going to be nervous because this is Johannesburg; we are not playing in India,” Kohli explained later. “And we had nothing to lose. We were playing expressive cricket and we got stuck into them.” They did, especially Mohammed Shami. Not long after play resumed post-tea, thanks to one of the best bowling spells by an Indian in overseas conditions, South Africa lost all their remaining wickets, 7, in the space of 17 overs – with Shami detonating the stumps at will and claiming four of those scalps.
But the wicket that really swung the tide in India’s favour, that of du Plessis's, wasn’t taken by Shami. The pitch, mostly, and Sharma, somewhat, have to be credited for that. The last time these two sides met at the Wanderers in 2013, du Plessis had nearly summoned a miracle in the fourth innings by scoring a century when his side were set an impossible 458 runs to win the game. Du Plessis had scored 134 and SA came within 7 runs of a world record. On Saturday, it wasn't to be yet again, by a significantly larger margin.
On a pitch du Plessis never wished to play another moment on yesterday due to its excessive bounce ended up doing him in today by keeping low. Very low. Sharma hit the dreaded crack and the ball darted into du Plessis at ankle-length, crashing into the base of his off stump. The SA captain went down on his haunches and South Africa stayed there, minus the legs to get back up on their feet again.
Brief scores: Johannesburg, Day 4 -- South Africa 194 & 177 all out in 73.3 overs (D Elgar unbeaten 86, H Amla 52; M Shami 5/28, I Sharma 2/31) lost to India 187 & 247 by 63 runs