Keegan Petersen could have been out on the first ball he faced on the fourth day in Cape Town. Mohammed Shami whispered “drive this,” with a ball that shaped away from off stump, tempted Petersen into the shot and then proved too good for him. He was beaten.
He could have been out the ball after that, which was even better than the first. If that delivery could talk, it would have hissed as it curved past the outside edge. He was beaten again.
He could have been out four balls later when Shami finished the over with one that nipped back into Petersen. He expected the opposite (who wouldn’t after what had happened above?) and decided to leave. The joke was on him as the ball headed towards the stumps and then just went over them.
In between all that, Petersen brought up his third fifty of the series with a slice through gully that stayed aerial for long enough to put hearts in mouths, but bounced quickly enough for the realisation that no-one was there, to result in two runs. He barely celebrated the milestone and instead had a mid-pitch meeting with his batting partner, Rassie van der Dussen, who had, just a few minutes earlier, been hit near the box.
Were they discussing how many more body blows they expected? Or how they were going to scratch and squirm their way to collect the 109 more runs they needed to win? Maybe it was just Petersen telling van der Dussen the first thing he is going to do when he leaves the bio-bubble, knowing van der Dussen still has the ODI series to come. Anything to lighten the mood and escape the claustrophic intensity that engulfed the situation.
Cape Town has rolled out its hottest week of the summer so far with temperatures in the 30s and on Friday afternoon, the south-easter that had taken the edge off took the day off instead. But the real heat was coming from the Indian attack, who had given so little away that South Africa did not cross 250 all series, and were readying for their last throws of the dice in an attempt to make history.
Jasprit Bumrah hit van der Dussen on the pad and then found an edge that went into the gap between gully and backward point. He beat Petersen driving away from his body, an unusually loose approach from a player who has been compact in defense throughout the series, and there was a sense that Petersen may nick off at any time. Eventually, he did. Petersen was on 59 when he offered a straightforward chance to Cheteshwar Pujara at first slip, but he put it down. History may remember that as the moment the series swung South Africa’s way.
Though they still needed 86 runs and van der Dussen was looking as comfortable as a beachgoer who stood on a sea urchin, that missed opportunity sucked the momentum from India’s effort and galvanised South Africa. You could see in the way the next few minutes played out. Petersen flicked the very next ball through square leg for three and India chose to not to review an lbw appeal that they seemed confident about on-field when Umesh Yadav swung the ball in to hit Petersen on the thigh pad. Sending the decision upstairs would have been fruitless anyway, as replays confirmed the ball was bouncing over the stumps, but India’s enthusiasm, rather than their certainty, had dwindled. Next over, Petersen creamed a Bumrah delivery through the covers for four – his shot of the match and then went on to his highest Test score.
He has bettered his own performance in three of his last four innings and may have sensed that a first Test century was waiting for him towards the end of this chase, but this series has been characterised by pitches on which batters are never truly in and even if looked like Petersen was, he actually wasn’t. Against a harmless length ball from Shardul Thakur, Petersen tried to open the face of the bat to dab the ball through the off side but played outside the line and edged onto his stumps.
There was a cruel irony to it too. Petersen was out on the 100th ball of the day.
South Africa still needed 57 runs to win and with seven wickets in hand, that should have been considered a safe bet, this line-up is (maybe was?) prone to collapses and under pressure could have imploded. In an almost action replay of his performance at the Wanderers, van der Dussen ensured they didn’t.
The period of play immediately after Petersen’s dismissal felt eerily similar to the passage that took place in the morning. Temba Bavuma could have been out third ball when a Thakur delivery hit a crack and swerved back in from outside off. He shouldered arms and would have looked silly had the ball gone on to hit the stumps. Fortunately for him, it just sailed over. South Africa waited 14 balls for their next run and it was hastily taken when Bavuma pushed Thakur wide of mid-on. They only got one more run in the next 15 balls.
But then Bavuma rose on his toes to drive Bumrah through point for his first four and unfurled a perfect cover drive three balls later, and the tension had been cut. As far looking settled goes, he was the closest South Africa came to it, and so maybe it was only fitting that he smacked the winning runs to square leg. On the sidelines, Petersen looked relaxed for the first time this series.
He had changed out of his whites and into South Africa’s navy blue training kit and was seated between Dean Elgar and Keshav Maharaj. All three were smiling. And then standing. And then shouting. And then soaking in that this team, as Lungi Ngidi says, “without superstars,” had found a few and done what very few expected, by winning a series against the No.1-ranked team in the world and chasing tricky totals down twice. Petersen was at the centre of both those efforts.
Before this series, he would have been known only to those who watched South Africa in the West Indies six months ago and may have been the subject of some sympathy. He scored 44 runs in three innings on that tour after the opening partnership was broken in single figures every time. Now, Petersen is the hero of this iconic home victory and will be among those who lead South Africa into a new era.