Analysis: A victory that came too late

Had India played the key moments better, it would have become the first team from the sub-continent to win a Test series in South Africa.

Celebrating in style: Skipper Virat Kohli’s gravity-defying jump set the trend for India’s victory celebrations in the third Test.   -  AFP

India will look at the tour of South Africa as an opportunity lost. This was a Test series that Virat Kohli and his men should have won.

Had India played the key moments better, it would have become the first team from the sub-continent to win a Test series in South Africa.

Kohli and his boys fought back hard to win the final Test on a hazardous Wanderers pitch, after missing precious chances to close out the first two Tests.

Erratic display

The Indian pacemen, so probing at the start, lost their line against the lower order and the tail in the first Test at Newlands.

There were too many deliveries on the leg-stump that were gleefully put away. These extra runs eventually came back to haunt India in a tight low-scoring Test.

In another league: Kohli was way ahead of other batsmen and finished the series with a total of 286 runs.   -  AP

 

Then, after Virat Kohli had made the first innings a virtual dead-heat with a magnificent 153, India had South Africa on the ropes with early strikes in the second Test at Centurion.

It was at this stage that India put down crucial catches. This was another defining phase of the series. Had the catches been held, India could have nailed the second Test. In England and Australia, India cannot afford to let these moments fly away.

Strange decisions

The heartening news from an Indian perspective was that the side competed and stretched South Africa, even in the first two Tests where it went down.

India failed to get its playing XI right in the first two Tests. There was no way Ajinkya Rahane should have been left out of the XI.

The little Rahane is a proven performer away from the sub-continent, has the technique and the heart to cope with both movement and bounce. Crucially, he is sound off his back-foot, can cut and pull the pace-men, and has a good defence.

While it is true that Rahane was in indifferent form ahead of the series and Rohit Sharma made loads of runs in the Test and ODI series against Sri Lanka, the former, given his record abroad, was a logical choice for India.

Coach Ravi Shastri talks about looking at the course and picking the horse, and if that was indeed the case, Rahane should have figured in the playing XI. If not for the first Test, he should have at least been included for the second.

By leaving out Rahane, India blundered. Rohit Sharma is an exciting shot-maker when conditions favour batsmen; in many respects, he is a flat track bully. Rohit was bound to be found out on South African tracks.

And, when finally selected for the final Test on a Wanderers pitch with pace, inconsistent bounce and seam movement, Rahane came up with a gem, an innings of 48 of exciting shot-making and lots of courage. It turned out to be a match-winning innings.

The first two Tests were close and Rahane could have swung it around for India. In England and Australia, India should have Rahane in the thick of things.

Leading from the front

Kohli, of course, was the outstanding batsman for India. Nobody from either side made more runs than his 286 at 47.66. The numbers are significant since the Tests at Newlands and Wanderers were played in conditions that were loaded in favour of the seamers.

Proving a point: Ajinkya Rahane, who was mysteriously dropped for the first two Tests, showed his mettle in the final Test.   -  AFP

 

Kohli batted with exceptional skill, particularly at Wanderers where the ball lent so much assistance to pacemen. Importantly, Kohli has tightened his game around the off-stump. He is picking the line better, and getting into good side-on positions to either play or leave.

The Indian captain was no longer drawn into deliveries leaving him. Kohli picked the length with precision, had the line covered, and when he drove through the off-side he did so with feet movement, balance and poise. And he whipped anything on the leg.

Kohli, good with horizontal bat strokes, cut and pulled as you need to do on seaming tracks when bowlers give you the length or the width.

He, however, has to curb his tendency to play across, attempting to work balls from the off to leg. This makes him a candidate for leg-before verdicts.

While Kohli has a rather short fuse on and off the field, he led the side capably with his body language staying positive irrespective of the situation.

Perhaps, he erred by holding back a rampant Mohammad Shami in the afternoon session during South Africa’s second innings at Centurion, but for most part his bowling and fielding changes were spot on. Kohli is evolving as a captain and a leader and did have his moments in South Africa.

But then, he needs to have consistency in the selection of the playing XI in Tests. As captain, Kohli has the final say on the composition of his team and should realise that settled sides win more.

In search of a perfect XI

All the chopping and changing — India has not had the same XI for the last 35 Tests — is not healthy and can make the players feel insecure.

The omission of Bhuvneshwar Kumar for the second Test at Centurion made news for all the wrong reasons. Bhuvneshwar bowled brilliantly at Newlands and was considered a certainty for Centurion. The team-management, however, preferred Ishant Sharma ahead of Bhuvneshwar.

Here, it must be said that the think-tank had compelling reasons to select Ishant. The Centurion pitch, of a surprisingly brownish hue and with considerably less grass than at Newlands, offered less movement off the seam, and India picked the lanky Ishant, more for the bounce he could extract off the surface.

Exciting prospect: Hardik Pandya made his presence felt both with the ball and the bat.   -  AFP

 

In the event, even Vernon Philander, a similar bowler to Bhuvneshwar, struggled at Centurion. And there were phases when Ishant bowled exceedingly well.

The team-management cannot be blamed for selecting Ishant over Bhuvneshwar in the second Test; here bounce was more of a factor than lateral movement.

Mixed series for Vijay

For India, M. Vijay came up with an exceptionally gutsy innings at the Wanderers, where the bounce was wicked. He took blows on the body but got behind the line in the second innings. And he played and left like the Vijay of old.

But then, in the first two Tests and the first innings at the Wanderers, he deviated from his natural waiting game and fell to uncharacteristic loose shots outside off.

Vijay, however, played with courage and focus on the critical third morning of the third Test — he almost batted through the entire session — despite getting hit on fingers, forearms, and the box against a high quality South African attack on a testing pitch. He did not give his wicket away.

The innings confirmed Vijay is still the No. 1 opener in Tests for India and should be on the flight to England. However, Shikhar Dhawan struggled against the short ball at Newlands — he was late on the pull —while K. L. Rahul batted with limited feet movement in the last two Tests.

Yet, given his promise, Rahul should open with Vijay in England. The pair still represents India’s best chance against the new ball. Rahul, though, has to work on his feet movement and judgement around off.

Pujara’s woes

Cheteshwar Pujara needlessly ran into big trouble at Centurion — he now has the rather dubious distinction of being among a select few who have been run-out in both the innings of a Test — but did come up with a fine half-century on the first day at the Wanderers after India, audaciously, elected to bat on a green pitch.

Hardik Pandya struck a thrill-a-minute 93 in an adverse situation for India at Newlands, did show signs of promise with his seamers, and whipped up moments of brilliance on the field but has to mature as a cricketer. He tends to commit the sort of mistakes that is not acceptable at the highest level.

The pace gang

The story of the series was the Indian bowling. India took all 60 wickets in the three Tests and the attack appeared incisive. When he found his rhythm, Mohammed Shami was fast and bowled in compelling areas, taking the ball away, or bringing it in sharply. He scalped 15 batsmen in the series and his blistering spell closed out the Test for India at the Wanderers.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar bowled with control, pace and movement to leave even a master of the craft such as Michael Holding impressed. And his tenacious batting down the order — he has a rather secure defence —meant Bhuvneshwar can now qualify as a full-fledged all-rounder.

Breathing fire: In his debut Test series, Jasprit Bumrah, with his long-lever quick-arm action and sharp pace, troubled the opposition.   -  AP

 

In his debut Test series, Jasprit Bumrah, with his long-lever quick-arm action and sharp pace, added teeth to the Indian attack. He could get the ball to climb from back of a length, seamed the ball both ways and sent down an effective yorker.

Given his action and release, the batsmen found him hard to pick. If he can bowl more on the off-stump and work on his consistency, Bumrah could prove a handful for most batsmen in Tests.

And Ishant, the senior paceman in the pack, bowled capably in the final two Tests, operating with control and fetching India critical breakthroughs.

 

The others

R. Ashwin bowled well in the second Test at Centurion where the conditions suited his kind of bowling and did bat usefully. He, surely, will have a key role to play in England, given his experience in county cricket as well.

Wriddhiman Saha ‘kept wonderfully well in the first Test at Newlands —he set an Indian record for most dismissals in a Test — but then fitness concerns ruled him out of the rest of the series.

Parthiv Patel donned the big gloves in the second Test, but dropped vital catches. He put up an improved display in the third Test but India needs to focus on ‘keeping and not batting when it picks reserve wicket-keepers.

This Indian team, if it can smoothen a few rough edges, will have a fighting chance in England and Australia.