It was high drama in the Bull Ring as the action careered towards its arresting conclusion, a cliff to be scaled to its consequence; to fail and fall or prevail and glimpse the belvedere.
Drama is a product of prize and doubt, its venue the edge, its permanent state imbalance.
The prize for Australia, as the second Test in this mini-series reached its conclusion, was a win to draw the series, a foundation lain for national renewal, no less. That for South Africa, with a win or a draw, was victory over their opponents in a series for the first time since readmission into the Test playing family ten long years ago.
The doubt was supplied by rain that washed out the extended morning session’s and the uncertainty of the light that had foreshortened each earlier day’s play – the heartbeat accelerated by the manner in which these two teams have gone at their tasks like old explorers anxious for honour, short of their former strength, but intent on clawing themselves to the summit in conditions that made batting as precarious and provisional as ice climbing.
In fact there were more spectators on the terrace of the Hotel Eiger to watch the first ascent of the North Face than there were yesterday in the un-populated expanses of the Wanderers Stadium where, in true cliff-hanger style, all four outcomes were possible.
When play began Clarke’s top-rope severed, cut through by Philander, sending his off stump crashing to the valley floor.
Shortly there after, stubborn Ponting, rationing his concentration for all he was worth, tackled another pitch but, weighed down by a rucksack of misgivings, edged Philander to slip.
The starting goal of 168
meters runs with seven in hand had, in a flash, moved up a grade or two to 145 with five remaining – an overhang to climb.
Hussey and Haddin roped up and belayed securely to the rock face, dismissed time as of no consequence, and resolved to get there one handhold after another.
In the match ’til then, only four pairings had held the hazards at bay long enough to lift the score by three figures and more. Each had threatened to make the break through to the uplands only to fall. Now, a fifth such partnership would bag the
peak prize. Or two of half a hundred?
With the score advanced by exactly fifty , Hussey, became another casualty, the ball pitching one third outside leg stump but two thirds within the line of the stumps struck him in front like a falling stone – such are the margins between safety and downfall.
Haddin, slipshod of late, continued the ascent, with surer feet, hand over hand, hold after flaking hold, with Johnson roped tightly to him.
After tea (energized by Kendal mint cake), Brad and Mitch untied themselves, and climbing free, sped across the difficulties, scoffing at the objective dangers, the ice towers and the avalanches.
Almost immediately after reaching his half-century and with the summit in sight, Haddin became Philander’s fifth wicket and the issue steepened for Australia. The lurch to the precipice continued as Steyn removed Siddle, bringing Cummins to the crux – 18 more strides, one for each year of his young life, gasping for oxygen, two wickets intact.
A month ago Cummins would have been batting No 8, skipping across the lowland approaches to Test cricket in the under18s. He now climbed into the attack as if he was still down there, unencumbered by a Ponting’s rucksack of doubt, his mind untroubled by vertigo. Only a reckless drive that slipped through the outstretched hands of Steyn caused a moment of hesitation. Then on and up.
Thus to Cummins, standing at the pinnacle, fell the honour both of planting Ivor Ivan’s flag which he did with a fearless boundary off Tahir, and to him also the acolade of Man of the Match in his first Test.
This was a great five days of cricket.
To the embarrassingly few who were there in person to watch, it will last in the memory, arguably, long after Test cricket has gone the way of all things, buffeted by the jet stream.
There was much talk and a number of banners mocking the greatly exaggerated news of the death of Test cricket. But …
Great as this match was, the question remains, for how long will this minority occupation continue to hold the support of those who directly and indirectly cross-subsidize it? Perpetually eroded by sibling rivalry from the shorter forms of the game, could Test cricket withstand twenty years of austerity?
With more doubts than prizes, is this form of the game on the edge? That questions remains in the balance.