While writing about sport, one should make full disclosure about one’s allegiances, and so I will – I really wanted South Africa to win the match against India. I have always been a fan of cricket, but I have never been able to link sport with nationality. To me, it’s about the teams, or individuals, and about the way they play.
For as long as I had the time to follow every cricket match played by every team, which would be from the early Nineties to the beginning of the millennium, and then again since I quit my last full-time job a few years ago, I have supported the South African team.
The match-fixing allegations didn’t bother me as much as the fallout, and the end of Hansie Cronje’s career. I did think he was an excellent captain, and an excellent player. Matches do get fixed all the time, everywhere, in most sports. Some guys get caught, some don’t. Except in India, there isn’t much money in cricket, and people will continue to succumb to temptation.
Yes, it upset me that a match I had treasured as the victory of sportsmanship over strategy would become known as ‘The Leather Jacket Test’.
And, yes, perhaps my reasoning over the match-fixing is flawed.
For the longest time, I thought I had no allegiances anymore in cricket, that I just wanted to watch good matches. But that isn’t how it works in sport. It isn’t easy to take the moral high ground. Every match you watch, whichever sport it is in, you end up supporting one side, however mildly.
So, on the fifth day of the first test, I knew I really, really, really wanted South Africa to win. Even on the morning of the fifth day, when most people were discussing whether the match would be wrapped up by tea-time, I was sure there could be three possible results.
As the last four overs played out, I knew which was most likely, and though it may not have been the best thing for fans to watch, I do respect it.
In this day, when T20 dominates world cricket and one-dayers have become twice as high-scoring as they used to be, we are used to wanting results. We are used to people ‘going for it’.
Amid all this, the match at the Wanderers was a reminder of what test cricket is really about – quality, persistence, tough decisions and strategy. Both teams showed the first three qualities, and South Africa showed all four, towards the end.
One of my favourite aspects of the way South Africa has played cricket, right since the Bob Woolmer days, was the clinical strategy – the rigorous practice, the rigorous planning.
All the time that AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis were at the crease, I knew a win was within reach. De Villiers' fall worried me, not only because of what it would mean – the out-of-form Duminy, a bowler who can bat in Philander, an injured man in Morne Morkel, and a man who can’t bat in Imran Tahir – but also because of how the ball was behaving.
To me, the end of South Africa’s chances of a win was du Plessis' quite unnecessary run out. Once that mistake had been made, I knew there would be no other. And Dale Steyn’s body language, his fierce shake of the head when Philander wanted to give the odd single a shot, made it obvious that those were the instructions from above – no mistake.
It’s easy to say, sitting on the edge of our sofas, that they could have risked the fall of one more wicket. But when people who aren’t used to batting must walk out to an unpredictable pitch in fading light, to face a team rejuvenated by a cluster of wickets, it gets more complicated.
This isn’t the team where Lance Klusener would walk in at No. 8, and the test centurion Shaun Pollock would walk in at No. 9.
All it would have taken for South Africa to throw away a match were three good balls from the Indian bowlers. And so, there was only one good decision.
This time round, not even the usually euphoric cricket writers in India have been able to lavish praise on the team. There was relief, not jubilation. They would have liked to throw in a headline about chokers, to pun on Vernon Philander’s name.
This time, South Africa didn't choke. They will go into the next game feeling like the side on top, because they completed an uphill task rather honourably. The Indian team won’t be left feeling great ~ they did avoid a headline about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But they didn’t capitalise on a solid total and early wickets.
I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. Yet, I’m grateful ~ not only because I didn't have to watch my favourite team lose, but also because the game reminded me of what test cricket is all about.