The best travelling unit that Ravi Shastri proclaimed has lost its way. The fabulous start to 2021 at Gabba now lies buried under the pasting Virat Kohli’s team got in Cape Town at the hands of an opposition which was hardly considered a threat in most of the pre-series assessments.
In fact, the way the series took off with India finishing the first day at 272 for three, should have set the trend. KL Rahul's century ensured a thumping win. The performance was so emphatic that Sunil Gavaskar predicted a 3-0 triumph.
Gavaskar was not at fault. The Indian team -- basking in its performance in Australia and England -- was touted as the best combination in the world of Test cricket. South Africa, on the other hand, struggled to field a strong combination in the wake of some retirements and pull outs - AB de Villiers and Quinton de Kock. In the absence of Anrich Nortje, even the bowling was not at its best for the home team.
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This was supposed to be India’s best chance to make history by winning its first ever series in South Africa. The win in Centurion, India’s first at the venue, promised a lot. But it fell flat in the next two matches, exposing India’s shortcomings. There was not one session of domination from the team which had won the first Test so comprehensively.
The famed Indian batting line up, especially the middle-order, had no answer to the South African fast bowlers. Once again, the fallibility against the ball when it moves, or bounces showed the Indian batters in poor light. There was little resistance from the trusted pair of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. Even Virat Kohli was a shadow of the domineering batter he is known to be.
The burning question right through was the inclusion of Rahane and Pujara in the playing XI even as they evidently struggled to get right their temperament and footwork. It was obvious they were riding on their reputation when the reality was begging them to concede their spots to the likes of Hanuma Vihari and Shreyas Iyer. Too long a rope for these veterans was the growing refrain in the cricket fraternity.
Barring Rishabh Pant, the batting lacks a match-winner. Kohli, the best batter on either side, was sadly not at his best, with technical flaws creeping into his batting. His 79 off 201 balls notwithstanding in the final Test, his lack of confidence was evident while dealing with a dedicated outside the off-stump corridor pursued by the South African bowlers. India’s woes multiplied as Kohli was torn by this predicament to attack or wait.
Kohli missed the second Test and returned to a team which appeared short of plans and ideas. By sticking to Rahane and Pujara, the team management, much against the wishes of Kohli, displayed a defeatist mindset.
The much-awaited change of culture in the dressing room may yet take time to find its roots. It is not fair to expect Rahul Dravid to ring in sweeping reforms. In five Tests, he has dealt with three captains - Rahane, Rahul and Kohli. It should be remembered that patience was Dravid’s greatest virtue as a batter and he is not going to discard that policy when evaluating his team. Rahane and Pujara would have been relieved at his appointment, but they failed to chip in.
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The gains of Australia were lost in South Africa. The first day in Centurion was an aberration for South Africa but it came back with amazing confidence in Johannesburg and Cape Town, winning by seven wickets on both the occasions. Much had been made of the Last Frontier campaign, but India came a cropper because of its batting failures. The strong batting that India boasted was dismantled by the relatively inexperienced -- apart from Kagiso Rabada -- South African attack.
South Africa gained by its belief that it had little to lose against an opposition that had greater claims as a Test combination. The Gabba win was a classic for all ages and much of the expectations of a series win in South Africa had been built on the overall performance of the team through the year. It came to naught in South Africa as India’s batters let the team down.
India also incurred the wrath of its critics because of the on-field behaviour of a few players including skipper Kohli. The captain was guilty of letting his frustration get the better of him. True, his trademark aggression appeals to the young fans, but it did not go down well with many connoisseurs of cricket, who expect the captain to set an example on the field. These are tough times for Kohli, battling poor form. But by relinquishing captaincy and leaving the choice of deciding the fate of Pujara and Rahane with the selectors Kohli has spoken his mind.
India can’t afford to bear the burden of two non-performing batters in the middle order. Flawed footwork has shackled Pujara and Rahane. The duo has played match-winning roles in the past. But their lack of consistency has hurt the team big. The pressure to deliver has only increased on Rahane and Pujara. The South African tour has only hastened their departure and Kohli, too, had sensed the end of his long-time comrades.
It is hardly surprising that Kohli wants to just concentrate on his batting now. The apparent breakdown of communication with the Board president Sourav Ganguly and the new selection committee chairman went a long way in convincing Kohli that his contributions to Indian cricket were being undermined during times when he needed support. Constant leaks in the media questioning his integrity and his own form proved a lethal combination for Kohli to relinquish the Test captaincy.
It was time for him to move on. No player is greater than the game, but we shall miss the aggression that marked Kohli’s tenure. He also matched the aggression with deeds. With the pressures of captaincy off his mind, Kohli can be his natural self, the free-flowing all-format batter.
The task of the selectors is, now, challenging. To find a new Test captain, and replacements for Rahane and Pujara and for the team management to accept that while bowlers win you Tests, batters set them up. It is imperative that the process that one keeps hearing from the coach and the selectors is now put on a course where performance and nothing else should matter. Dravid should know it best. He had lost one season before getting a chance at Lord’s. It is for him to give shape to the expectations of his admirers. Perform or perish should be the norm since India has a strong pool of players waiting to step in. What next for Pujara-Rahane as Kohli quits Test captaincy