His team abandoned plans to go for a win after coming extremely close to upstaging India, but South African cricket captain Graeme Smith insisted that the last-minute change in strategy was not prompted by the fear of loss.
In a pulsating finish to the first Test in Johannesburg on Sunday, South Africa fell short by only eight runs in what could have been the highest ever fourth innings run-chase. Instead, it was a drawn match, as both teams head to Durban for the second Test on December 26 with the series at 0-0.
The Proteas’ skipper was pointedly asked whether the hosts were scared of losing and hence squandered a position of strength.
'I don’t think it was that (fear of losing),' he replied.
'We were on target. But even at lunch, we didn’t believe we will get as close as we did. We were just batting, trying to make sure we build a partnership. We knew to save the game we needed a session without losing any wickets and we got that after lunch.'
Smith said centurion and set batsman Faf du Plessis’ run out changed the scenario slightly for the batsmen out there in the middle.
'...with Faf getting run-out in the final session after A.B. (de Villiers) got out, the batsmen in the middle thought that it was in the best interest of the team to play for a draw,' he explained.
'Morne Morkel was struggling to stand (after twisting his ankle on day three) and with Imran Tahir, we don’t really know what we could have got. So the team has to support and believe in the decision Vernon (Philander) and Dale (Steyn) made in the middle,' he added.
Du Plessis scored his third Test hundred while de Villiers notched up his 18th Test century as they put up 205 runs for the fifth wicket. But they both fell in the last session of the match, allowing India to come back and hold on for a draw.
'The message to the batsmen was to set the game up for the last over. Then, there were a couple of maidens bowled, which made it difficult. We needed to give Vernon an opportunity to win us the game, I think he was the guy that probably would have done that,' he said.
'It never happened. At that stage you can’t send out messages between overs. That is not allowed. Ultimately the strength of this team is that there are good decision makers.'
'Each player is mature and has made great decisions over a period of time, and won cricket games for South Africa. That’s how we have got to number one, trusting each other and trusting each other’s decision making. Dale and Vernon have hundred per cent support from me,' Smith said.
Team India did surprise everyone, playing the way it did.
The visitors dominated for four days of the match, but two sessions in the game went South Africa’s way and denied India the victory.
The first was when Philander and du Plessis put on 80 runs in the first innings on day two. Then, it was the stand between du Plessis and de Villiers on day five, which was crucial to the match.
In the end, it was surprising to see the Proteas not going for the win, something outlined by man of the match Virat Kohli.
But Smith downplayed the issue.
'For us, it was a mental drain to play from behind from day two onwards. The second day was an extremely difficult day to bat. Credit to our team and the ability we have that we found the mental strength to get something out of this Test match,' he said.
'Yes, India were ahead in the game. They should be very disappointed that they didn’t win. There was a lot in the wicket to work with to win the Test. I would be surprised if M.S. Dhoni didn’t feel that his bowlers should have won the game for them.
'I would certainly as a captain — with 450-460 on the board, 135 overs to bowl. You have got to believe that on this surface you have the bowling attack that will do the job,' added Smith, throwing down the gauntlet to India again.
It sets up the second Test at Durban. With South Africa taking pride in their performance and India surprising everyone, it will be a finger-licking contest between the world number one and the number two ranked Test sides over five days.
'This Test match has been incredible. It will certainly go down as one of the great games. India — Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara — played extremely well. Their bowlers bowled really well in the first innings,' Smith said.
'We fought hard, and were able to show enough skill to get something out of this game. The fact that everyone is talking about Test cricket, the fact that everyone is talking about this game, is wonderful for the game of cricket,' he added.