South Africa fall just short of record run chase

GERALD IMRAY
Last updated 08:03 23/12/2013

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South Africa and India drew an epic test on Sunday as the top-ranked South Africans - written off completely at the start of the final day - fell just eight runs short of a record run chase and one of cricket's greatest yet most improbable victories.

Facing a mammoth target of 458 to win the first test, South Africa finished on 450-7 after putting itself on course for a stunning win through a 205-run partnership between Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers, who both made centuries. In a final twist, the hosts then had to turn runs down to save themselves with tail-enders at the crease in a hectic finish at the Wanderers.

No. 2-ranked India clawed its way back in the gripping finale that befitted a meeting of the format's best teams to remove De Villiers for 103, Duminy for just 5 and Du Plessis to a vital run out for 134 when South Africa was within sight of the momentous win.

"We lost it a bit when AB and Faf were batting but we came back," India's Virat Kohli said.

South African tailenders Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn were left clinging on for the draw and ultimately playing it safe and choosing to defend when so agonizingly close to making cricket history.

Just before Ajinkya Rahane's throw crashed into the stumps with Du Plessis sprawling to make his ground for the game's most crucial moment, South Africa incredibly needed only 16 from 20 balls.

"Everyone was pretty shocked, honestly," Kohli said. "We didn't think they'd stop going for that score."

South Africa captain Graeme Smith said the decision to play for the draw at the end - effectively the last three overs - and save the game after all South Africa had achieved through three grueling sessions was made by the batsmen, Philander and Steyn.

The skipper said he backed them completely despite rumblings of discontent from the crowd at the very end of an enthralling day.

"The knocks that AB and Faf played, everybody would have been saying what an incredible effort," Smith said. "We mustn't lose sight of that in the emotion. You understand the emotional side. I think the context was that it was an unbelievable test match ... I don't think too many people gave us a chance (of drawing)."

Actually, no one did, with South Africa facing over a day to survive after India batted supremely in its second innings, mainly through Cheteshwar Pujara's 153, to apparently put itself in an unbeatable situation. South Africa also was down a batsman with tailender Morne Morkel injured.

Yet, South Africa's 450-7 was the third-highest fourth-innings total in more than 2,000 games of test cricket over nearly 140 years, and would have been the highest successful chase ever if the Proteas had got to the 458.

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"I'm very happy that we pulled it through," Du Plessis said, hailing the draw. "Like Graeme said, a lot of people wrote us off."

Steyn, having survived, hit a six off the last ball of a match India was expected to win with ease and ended up almost losing, then almost only just winning, and finally drawing in a roller-coaster of emotion for both teams.

"That inside edge of AB's (De Villiers) opened things up for us. Then we got JP (Duminy) out," Kohli said. "We thought we're going to win the game. Then Vernon (Philander) came in and struck a few boundaries and we're on the back foot again. Then we ran Faf (Du Plessis) out, we thought we could win it again.

"There was too much going on at the end. Just a very enjoyable test match."

No team has ever scored more than 418 to win a test. South Africa would not only have shattered that record with another eight runs, but its total would have stood out as the second-highest ever fourth innings score irrespective of the result, with only England's 654-5 in the famous timeless test of 1939, which was not limited to five days, ahead of it.

That fourth-innings total will probably never be beaten in the modern game.

The only other last-innings score ahead of South Africa's on Sunday was New Zealand's 451 in a losing effort against England a decade ago.

Du Plessis was South Africa's savior as he fought for over a day for his third test century to ensure, whatever happened, South Africa didn't lose.

But India also showed huge resilience under wrenching pressure near the end to pull South Africa back from the brink of what would have been one of test cricket's greatest victories, and also famous losses.

Seamer Mohammed Shami was outstanding with his 3-107 and his controlled finish, along with Rahane's individual brilliance in running Du Plessis out with a direct hit, probably prevented South Africa winning when Philander's late 25 not out suggested South Africa still had more

- AP

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