By the end of the fourth day, the commentators and the pitch curators cleared the air hovering around possible demons which might come to haunt the batsmen on the last day. The application was key for a revamped South African camp entering into the last day to save the Cape Town Test.
90 overs, 312 runs, and eight wickets.
A seasoned campaigner, James Anderson marked his run-up to kick off the proceedings on day 5. Four deliveries into the over and Anderson was seen charging down fiercely, possibly more than he ever did in his 151-Test career. The first over of the day provided more action than the Proteas' entire tour of India recently. An inside edge, a fierce lbw appeal, and a broken bat.
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Two overs later, Maharaj was sent packing as Anderson picked up a wicket with the help of late lateral movement off the deck. England were up and running towards a potential chance of levelling the series. Jimmy Anderson was slowly becoming unplayable and had already registered six maidens in 11 overs. But none, absolutely no-one showcased a hint of complacency as the visitors soon realised the grit of the batsman making his way to the middle.
Faf du Plessis had been here before. But not against someone who knew every trick in Test cricket to get a resilient batsman out, someone who had the fuel to run in day-in and day-out, bombarding a series of impeccable lines and lengths without an inch of compromise on the speed gun.
Anderson tested the South Africa captain with a full delivery attacking the stumps first-up. Du Plessis had negated the pacer's threat, at least for the next six balls, which gave him some time to breathe and also read the situation better.
However, Anderson's 100-Test brethren Stuart Broad, who was keeping the shine on the red cherry was bowling with ferocity second to none. As Pieter Malan scuffled his way through Broad's testing over, Anderson was seen warming up for the second wave of attack on the opposition captain.
The 61st over of South Africa's innings saw Anderson generate more swing and movement off the seam. He started with a short of a good length ball and made it more fuller as the over progressed. Du Plessis seemed impervious to fullish lengths and defended each ball on its merit. As calm as the batsman looked, the more animated Anderson became with his follow-through.
As du Plessis settled down with time, Anderson became too lethal for Malan to handle. Close leg-before calls, caught behind appeals and near-misses was being watched closely by du Plessis from the other end. Joe Root read the situation perfectly and made it harder for Malan to change ends with attacking field setting. Malan survived a scare.
Du Plessis, on the other hand, was playing out Broad without any discomfort. It wasn't before the third ball of the 63rd over that du Plessis faced Anderson again. By this time, Anderson was bowling in mid-130s and getting closer to procuring the traditional swing he was generating with an old ball. All four deliveries left in the over were defended off the front foot. Fullish lengths, with two-outswingers and two in-dippers kept du Plessis guessing.
As Malan tackled Broad's unending surge for glory, du Plessis and Anderson were seen exchanging words. Joe Root had strategically placed Anderson around that short mid-on position which allowed the veteran bowler to get into du Plessis' head.
Something which even the likes of Ben Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle and James Pattinson failed to do over the course of his 535-ball stay way back in the 2012 Adelaide Test.
A Test match which is still looked at as a pedestal of gritty performance includes from former South Africa captain AB de Villiers, and Faf du Plessis. When the world watched in awe, AB de Villiers blocked anything and everything in his way to scoring only 33 runs off 220 balls.
Faf du Plessis also stepped up his game quite a notch and faced 159 and 376 balls in two innings and save the Test match. If David Warner and Mike Hussey's centuries in the first innings became distant memories, none even talked about Australian captain Michael Clarke's double ton in the same match. It was a rare sight to see two of the world's biggest stroke-makers, de Villiers and du Plessis, keep the sanctity of Test cricket intact.
Tuning in to the 65th over, Anderson keenly targeted du Plessis' off stump repeatedly with a hint of movement both sides. The idea was clear - bowl full, attack the stumps and let the ball do the rest. Bowling against his natural strength, the curve back into the right-hander by Anderson was a well-drafted plan.
However, du Plessis remained unperturbed, playing the ball as late as possible on the front foot right under the nose. Soon, the batsman trusted his instincts and left the balls that were too close to the off-stump but going over. Every time du Plessis left the ball, Anderson had an extended follow-through with an innocuous stare.
Soon Broad joined in the conversation between Anderson and du Plessis when umpire Dharmasena intervened. Post that, Anderson was removed from the attack by Joe Root. But the damage had already been done. Du Plessis' stay at the crease didn't last much longer and soon got out to spinner Dominic Bess. South Africa ended up losing their last five wickets for 11 runs to hand a series-levelling victory to England.
Proteas may have lost the match, but the battle between du Plessis and James Anderson is still unfinished. A battle between resilience and skill, grit against determination and class versus class.
The South African captain's 21-ball rendezvous with possibly the greatest Test bowler of this generation managed to add a fresh outlook to Test cricket. 21 deliveries that showed the world how Test cricket is still alive and kicking!
This was the kind of Test performance which Indian captain Virat Kohli recently talked about, while speaking on the health of the longest format. He had stated -
“If someone gets excitement from watching the battle between bat and ball and a great session of test cricket, in my opinion those are the people that should come and watch test cricket because they understand what’s going on."