SA’s 94 overs of heroism

Hashim Amla (AFP)
Hashim Amla (AFP)

Cape Town – At times it made you want to fall asleep ... yet somehow, always, it dared you to dream.

And then the dream came true.

The Proteas, no strangers to being branded frail of heart in the past, found team-wide reserves of sheer, bloody-minded defiance to cling on for a series-clinching second Test draw in bright evening sunshine after varying periods of gloom and rain at Colombo’s Sinhalese Sports Club ground on Monday.

Yes, it required a fair dollop of luck to go with the fortitude – the elements kept interrupting the Sri Lankans’ concerted and desperate push – but all that really matters is that South Africa have returned to the top of the ICC Test rankings and triumphed in Sri Lanka for the first time since 1993.

Luck, good and bad, is a time-honoured feature of the incomparable five-day game; sometimes you may rue it and sometimes you may ride it.

On this day Hashim Amla’s heroes often rode it, yet it doesn’t dim their achievement.

It is an illuminating fact that they still ended up having to negotiate 94 overs with nine wickets initially in hand on the on-and-off day’s play. In many countries, where seamers would have had a massively greater say, that’s still significantly more overs than you might squeeze in on a final day in picture-perfect weather.

And who really cares, back on South African soil, that the run rate seldom crawled much above a frankly novel one-and-a-quarter or thereabouts to the over?

Throughout their batting effort in this particular Test match, one where they were on the back foot after roughly its first hour, the Proteas approached their task with a debatable level of caution: their first innings did seem to have been constructed, when conditions were rather better at the crease, too slowly.

In the end, though, all that matters is they got the minimum result they required in Colombo to bag the series – we must bow to Amla, coach Russell Domingo and others for their unusually stone-walling tactics having worked.

The Proteas have played with more obvious urgency in Tests on the Subcontinent before ... and lost.

Besides, in the overall context of the series you could argue that they showed an eye-opening flexibility in approach, as there had been much enterprise in the way they engineered victory in Galle.

A peculiar, unorthodox South African second-innings scoreboard illustrates just how much a variety of their batsmen curbed their normal, more attack-minded instincts to stick stoically to the game-plan: Dean Elgar 13 off 65 balls, Quinton de Kock 37 off 92, Amla 25 off 159, AB de Villiers 12 off 67, Faf du Plessis 10 off 59, JP Duminy 3 off 65, Vernon Philander 27 not out off 98 (not to mention Messrs Steyn and Tahir doing their vital, delaying bit too).

This was not the stuff of aiding personal Test averages, but my goodness, it was all worth its obdurate weight in a greater, collective good on Monday.

Special words for two of the array of dapper trench-fighters, in particular: a personal view was that Philander emerged the most resolute of them all.

He is earning an increasing reputation for last-knock resistance against the odds – remember how nearly he saved the decisive third Test against Australia at Newlands in March? – and was immense both technically and psychologically as ‘Lankans crowded ever closer around the bat while the minutes ticked away to the nail-chewing close.

But Duminy’s decidedly unsexy, yet hugely game-influencing little statistical landmark in this match cannot be overlooked either.

Over the course of successive innings of three (no, not a printing gremlin) at the SSC, he shifted himself into second place in the Test annals for slowest strike rate having faced a minimum of 100 deliveries in a match.

Duminy kept at bay 58 balls in his first dig and 65 in the second, for a combined strike rate of 4.87 (his career one is 42.92!).

The only player “eclipsing” him is England wicketkeeper John Murray, who registered nought and three over the course of 101 balls against Australia at Sydney in January 1963, for a strike rate of 2.97 – but that wasn’t in a saved cause, as the Aussies later won by eight wickets.

 Here’s just something else to quite pleasantly contemplate after a tumultuous, in so many ways, mini-series: aren’t South Africa supposed to be a side in the throes of supposedly tricky restructuring?

This was a remarkably forceful early signal -- in a place where they have so often suffered near-misery -- of their renewed ambitions, even if Australia do recapture the No 1 berth in the fairly short term and things stay neck-and-neck for a while.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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