IND vs SA Test series: Faltering in the Final Frontier

India could blame its batters, but the bowlers cannot escape responsibility for the defeat in South Africa. Given the conditions, at least one of the targets in the last two Tests should have been defended.

Losing the plot: The flare-up over Dean Elgar winning a leg-before review in the South African second innings at Newlands was a needless show of temper by the Indians.   -  Reuters

The breeze blowing from the Table Mountain that sweeps across the Newlands ground carries with it several tales.

Stories of triumph, disappointment, tears, anger, and missed opportunities. These winds, which are a part of the cricketing landscape in these parts, are a witness to many narratives.

This time, too, they saw ecstasy on one side and agony on another.

Joy for South Africa and heartbreak for India. What a turnaround it was.

After India thumped South Africa in the first Test in Centurion, many spoke about a 3-0 sweep. India, they felt, was too strong for a transitional South African team.

South Africa coach Mark Boucher said: “After the first day of the opening Test, most people wrote us off.”

Two for joy: South African batter Keegan Peterson, the Man of the Match in the final Test and also the Man of the Series, defied the Indian attack with his flair, footwork, and balance. Skipper Dean Elgar, too, batted and led aggressively.   -  Getty Images

 

In fact, most people jumped the gun. How easily they overlooked the Proteas can be resilient at home, still possessed a potent pace attack and if the side got its batting right, it could yet challenge India.

The batting pieces fell in place and the South African picture was complete. The Proteas emerged 2-1 winners in one of the greatest come-from-behind stories by a transitional team in modern cricket history.

And the series consumed Indian captain Virat Kohli, who relinquished his job just a day after the series setback at Newlands. The disappointment was galling.

READ: What cost Team India a maiden series win in South Africa

A highly driven captain, who brought energy to the side apart from his highly-rated batting skills, and played Tests with great passion, called it a day as a skipper after a seven-year reign of some memorable conquests — Test series triumph over Australia in Australia — and a few heartbreaks.

The failure to defeat South Africa in South Africa in a Test series must go down as one of Kohli’s biggest failures as a captain.

What went wrong for India? In fact, there were many factors that did not go right for Kohli’s team.

The batting remained patchy throughout the series. India lost wickets in clusters. They did not put together enough partnerships.

K.L. Rahul made a fine hundred, playing and leaving in the first Test. He gradually tapered off after that with the clever South African seamers bowling closer to his off-stump and making him play those deliveries.

With the openers not firing after the first Test, the onus was on Cheteshwar Pujara at No. 3. The senior batter made an attacking half-century in the second Test but little else apart from that.

Ajinkya Rahane played a couple of fluent innings but could not kick on to a bigger score that a senior batter should.

And Kohli at No. 4 could not make an impression in the first Test, missed the second owing to a back spasm, and batted capably for his 79 in the first innings of the third Test but it was his dismissal in the second innings that opened the sluice gates for South Africa.

In the only opportunity he received, in the second Test, Hanuma Vihari, a sound player off his back-foot, made a fine impression in the cauldron.

The Proteas played with an attacking mindset. Despite losing the first Test principally because of ordinary batting, the host brought in an additional bowler, Duanne Olivier, when many wanted an additional batter.

Skipper Dean Elgar said, “The top six have to take responsibility.” That was it.

And the Proteas pace attack tested the Indian batting. Kagiso Rabada, the highest wicket-taker in the series with 20, bowled with real pace and hostility.

Winning a Test is a lot about nailing the big moments and South Africa did that in the Indian second innings at the Wanderers.

Elgar is not just a gutsy batsman whose character rubs off on the rest of the team but also a very good motivator who riled up Rabada who was not bowling at his best until that point.

READ: Kohli: No running away from our batting collapses every now and then

After the Elgar effect, Rabada bowled a hostile game-changing spell of blistering pace and fire, ending the threatening partnership between Pujara and Rahane and sending back Rishabh Pant after first striking the wicket-keeper batsman on the helmet grill.

Pant, also undone by a chatter by Rassie van der Dussen at short leg, went for a wild heave off the next delivery and was soon walking back. The momentum had shifted towards South Africa. Not for nothing is Rabada a game-changer.

All three Tests were played on typical South African pitches with healthy pace and bounce, and seam movement.

The batsmen had to be patient, be judicious outside off, and put away deliveries lacking in length or line; back-foot play and horizontal bat shots are often the way to success on these surfaces.

The Indian batters, playing away from the body with minimal footwork, were gobbled up by the cordon. They also succumbed to the hook and the pull shot; the Proteas laid the trap.

Off the blocks: South Africa’s lanky left-armer Marco Jansen, making his debut in the series, finished with 19 scalps, just one behind Rabada.   -  AP

 

South Africa’s lanky left-armer Marco Jansen, making his debut in the series, finished with 19 scalps, just one behind Rabada.

He brought with him natural bounce, the left-armer’s angle, the ability to bring the ball into the right-hander and bowl with rhythm and control from both over and round the wicket.

Jansen, just 21, was a complete package. And the Proteas had done their homework. The Indians have never really been comfortable against quality left-arm seamers.

The nippy Duanne Olivier struck some telling blows, settling into the side after returning to the team.

And Lungi Ngidi bowled a spell of great significance in the Indian second innings of the third Test when Kohli and Pant were threatening to shut the door on the South Africans.

Pant, spoken to by the team management after his misadventure in the second Test, blended attacking batting and responsible play with the ease of a natural, and Kohli — cutting down risks — was lending him dogged support.

Yet, Ngidi sent down delivery after delivery of controlled hostility, giving little away — such was his accuracy that finally Kohli wilted, going for a drive outside off and being taken in the cordon.

Ngidi dismissed R. Ashwin and Shardul Thakur and simply put, like Rabada’s in the second Test, this too was a game-changing spell.

And to think that South Africa was without its quickest bowler Anrich Nortje in the series.

Eventually, Pant’s tremendous hundred came in a losing cause. The southpaw has so much time to play when he applies his mind; the trick is in picking the length early.

Proteas’ exceptional bowling was backed by outstanding fielding and catching. Keegan Petersen and van der Dussen were particularly outstanding. Elgar and Aiden Markram were smart in the slips.

On the other hand, India put down crucial catches. These lapses, many in the cordon, proved costly.

Below par: The celebrated fast bowling pair of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami bowled with incision only in patches. They bowled a fuller length and were driven.   -  REUTERS

And the highly-rated Indian bowling, twice, failed to defend challenging 200-plus scores.

What went wrong with the attack that took 20 wickets in the first Test to hand India a convincing win?

A target of 240 on a Wanderers pitch of uneven bounce and seam movement was defendable but the Indian bowlers could not hit the widening cracks on a consistent basis. The lack of accuracy was appalling.

On the occasions they hit the cracks, they put the batters in considerable difficulty. In fact, Shardul Thakur hit the cracks in the first innings and sliced through the South African innings with seven wickets.

For South Africa, skipper Elgar took blows on the body, gloves, and helmet grill, but never wilted. His unbeaten 96 when the Proteas successfully chased 240 was among the bravest innings you could witness.

The South African batting evolved as the series progressed. Even the out-of-form Markram kick-started the innings with a blaze of strokes during the chase at the Wanderers.

Petersen, a compact, technically correct batter with flair, footwork, and balance, grew in stature as the series progressed, defending solidly, and finding the gaps with a surgeon’s precision.

van der Dussen, an organised batter with sound defence and judicious aggression, held one end up in both the successful chases.

And vice-captain Temba Bavuma essayed his shots on both sides of the wicket with power and placement.

Gradually, the South African batting line-up had a shape and appeared a solid structure.

The celebrated Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami bowled with incision only in patches. Their length too was not right on seaming tracks. They bowled a fuller length and were driven.

READ: An astonishing comeback by South Africa

Just short of a good length is the right ploy to bowl on seaming tracks where you give the ball a chance to bounce and deviate.

Ashwin was at best restrictive. Thakur gave it his all but has his limitations. Sadly, for India, the impressive Mohammed Siraj picked up a hamstring injury in the second Test and Umesh Yadav looked short of match practice in the decider.

And the flare-up over Elgar winning a leg-before review in the South African second innings at Newlands was a needless show of temper by the Indians.

Kohli, Rahul, and Ashwin made sure that the stump mic picked their voice as they cast aspersions on the official broadcaster for the series SuperSport.

As Elgar pointed out, the incident enabled South Africa to get quick runs as the angry Indians lost focus.

On the final day of the series, the classy and compact Petersen made his way to 82 — he finished with 276 runs, the most by any batter from both teams in the series — and was adjudged Man of the Match and Player of the Series. A star was born.

Like at the Wanderers, India lost by a mile, seven wickets, at Newlands.

You could blame the batters, but the bowlers cannot escape responsibility for the defeat. Given the conditions, at least one of the targets in the last two Tests should have been defended.

In the end, the opportunity for a historic first Test series win in South Africa was gone with the wind. And the eternal Table Mountain was a witness as India blew its best-ever chance.