By Nick Said
CAPE TOWN, Dec 23 (Reuters) - Most of South Africa's cricketers might have expected to wake up on Monday morning to headlines praising their valiant batting effort in saving the first test against India at the Wanderers.
But instead the country was locked in a heated debate over whether the hosts should have pushed on for a historic victory.
Set 458 to win on a wicket with variable bounce, the Proteas needed 16 runs from 19 balls at one stage but eventually fell eight short, having abandoned their chase in the fear of losing their final three wickets and the match.
Victory would have comfortably eclipsed the current world record of 418 runs chased down by West Indies against Australia in Antigua in 2003.
And that Faf du Plessis (134) and AB de Villiers (103), whose 205-run fifth-wicket stand contained some of the most skillful test batting seen in difficult conditions and under extreme pressure, are being lauded for saving the match rather than winning it for South Africa has irked many.
Playing 'brave cricket' has become a mantra for this South African team in recent years and has helped them to back-to-back series wins in Australia, a series victory in England and to the top of the world test rankings.
But as Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn shouldered arms for the final three overs as boos from the home support rang out around the ground, questions were raised as to where that bravado had disappeared to.
It was only once the draw was secured that Steyn launched the ball over the boundary for six, an act that was perhaps ill-advised in that it incensed the crowd even more by not only taking South Africa agonisingly close to their target, but also showed what was still possible on the wearing pitch.
NO TEAM ORDERS
Captain Graeme Smith, who was jeered at the post-match presentation, was quick to say that though Steyn and Philander were not acting on team orders, he supported their decision.
"Ultimately the guys out in the middle did what they thought was in the best interest of the team," Smith told reporters. Morne (Morkel) is struggling to stand really. And Immy (Imran Tahir) would probably say himself that you are not too sure what you are going to get from him.
"I think we as a team have to support the decision Dale and Vernon made in the middle. The strength of this team is that there are good decision makers. Each guy is mature.
"They've made great decisions over a period of time which have won cricket games for South Africa. I think that's how we have got to number one, by trusting each other and trusting each others' decision making. Dale and Vernon have 100 percent support from me."
India admitted their surprise that South Africa had taken their foot off the pedal having played themselves into a position of superiority, while a number of former players have expressed astonishment too.
Former test captain Kepler Wessels used his column on the SuperSport website to suggest the team had more to gain than lose.
"In my view the Proteas should have gone for the win while Steyn and Philander were at the crease," Wessels said. "Looking at the situation objectively and without emotion there was far more to gain going for the win than settling for a draw.
"The team was chasing history by breaking the record for the highest run chase. After the efforts of De Villiers and Du Plessis they deserved it."
Herschelle Gibbs took to Twitter to suggest that the victory would have been greater than the famous '438' one-day international during which South Africa chased down that number of runs to defeat Australia at the same venue in 2006.
The majority of South Africans across social media platforms agreed and suggested they would rather have seen their side go for the win and lose than play out the draw. (Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)