The final frontier remains the final frontier. This was Team India’s best chance ever to carve out a series win against South Africa in South Africa. It was an opportunity lost.
A couple of dubious ball tracking decisions hurt Team India’s cause but that’s not the reason why captain Virat Kohli’s men lost the fascinating and bitterly-fought series that seesawed every session. South Africa’s inexperienced and unheralded middle-order performed far better than India’s once-vaunted 3,4,5. In important periods at Johannesburg and Cape Town, Indian pacers were leaky and batters out of depth. Crucial catches too were dropped.
In moments that really mattered, South Africa raised their game to defend their proud home record and claim the three-Test series 2-1 after the shock Centurion loss. During his defiant and match-winning 96 at Johannesburg, captain Dean Elgar took more hits on the body than he found the fence. Elgar underlined that being steely in resolve or passionate about winning doesn’t necessarily have to be demonstrative and dramatic.
This is a major victory for the Proteas, especially since the team was still hurting from the recent retirements of AB De Villiers, Hashim Amla, Faf du Plassey and Dale Steyn. Such marquee players are not easy to replace. Remember, their star keeper-batsman Quentin De Kock retired midway through the series when the score was 0-1.
If South Africa had Rabada and Ngidi, India had Bumrah and Shami. But the visitors had no suitable riposte for the 21-year-old left-arm seamer Marco Jansen, who took 19 wickets for an average of 16. He was a key differentiator of the two sides. So were the unexpectedly high-class performances from the inexperienced batter Keegan Petersen and his partners-in-crime Van Der Dussen and Temba Bavuma in the middle order.
Bavuma finished with an average of 73. Petersen scored 3 half centuries. Van Dussen put a price on his wicket every time he batted, playing two invaluable support knocks in both the chases. Collectively, they have just one Test century in their entire careers.
For India, Kohli averaged 40 with one half century. Both Pujara and Rahane, who seem to hold an emeritus position in the middle order, ended with below 25 averages. Collectively, the trio has 57 Test tons between them. But Test cricket has little respect for reputation.
Ironically, Hanuma Vihari (20 and 40 not out), the only Indian to finish with a 50 plus average, was dropped for the third Test. He displayed immaculate defence and intelligence to guide India to a decent lead in Johannesburg. No 11 Mohd Siraj faced only 2 deliveries in a 23 ball partnership. But Sydney 2021 or Johannesburg 2022– no matter what Vihari does, it is not enough for him to retain his place.
Part of India’s problem comes with the way captain Kohli thinks and operates. Undeniably, he is a world-class bat, and he demonstrated it again at Cape Town. But Kohli is also a skipper of unchanging tastes and fixed templates. Playing with 5 bowlers is a brave but positive idea when your top 5 is in the prime nick. At a time when the fragility of the Indian middle order has been a national talking point for two years, playing 5 bowlers isn’t a sound strategy, more a fetish. The same policy was detrimental most notably in the World Test Championship final last year. Ironically, while Kohli insists on 5 bowlers, he doesn’t know what to do with them; one of them is invariably underbowled.
Kohli also has an aversion to using the third man. In the first 20 overs of any innings, a huge number of runs come from that area. The position is important to ensure that edges don’t get converted into boundaries to control the runs in a match of narrow margins. But he never does it.
On the plus side, Kohli is always engaged and positive as a captain. He has raised the team’s fitness and energy levels. However, intensity minus intelligence is like ideas without action. It is futile and fruitless in the end. His loss of poise after the utterly dubious ball-tracking decision allowed South Africa to gain dominance in the next 30 minutes. He shows great confidence in fast bowlers. But it is offset by his lack of conviction in spinners, notably R Ashwin. The offie doesn’t seem to be part of his offensive strategy, rather the last bowler to go to.
In the final Test, the Indian think tank, perhaps, also made a tactical error in opting for Umesh Yadav over Ishant Sharma. Ishant is no longer in his prime but he remains top-holding bowler. He has been integral to the team’s success in the past several years taking vital wickets and seldom leaking runs; unlike Yadav, generally a one-boundary-ball per over bowler. In tight, low-scoring contests as in Cape Town, Ishant would have been invaluable with his control.
Nonetheless, this was a series to remember. The Indian team needs to be congratulated for matching the hosts session after session. Only a momentary dip of focus at vital points let them down. There are plenty of lessons to be learnt from the tour. One of them is: memory and reputation cannot shield you from top-class fast bowling on hard bouncy pitches. Also when in doubt, opt for youth. India’s most inspiring innings came from Rishabh Pant, who’s only 24. The new generation — Shubhman Gill, Hanuma Vihari, Shreyas Iyer and others — must get a decent run. VVS Laxman took 33 innings to score his first Test ton. And we need to look beyond Hardik Pandya and develop another fast bowling all-rounder.
PS: The ball-tracking decisions must be looked into. We must find why and how fast bowler Lungi Ngidi’s delivery didn’t find an upper trajectory against Mayank Agarwal in Centurion but a spinner Ashwin’s went up like a Diwali rocket in Cape Town. In both cases, South Africa benefited.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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