One-horse race

At last India played 50 overs, and at last India scored 200 runs. But the Proteas were home in the 32nd over for the loss of just one wicket. A report on the Centurion rout by S. Dinakar.

The South African dominance was complete at Centurion. So was the Indian surrender. The Indians huffed and puffed to 200 for nine. The hosts were home and dry with 18.4 overs to spare.

The nature of the South African victory reflects the gulf between the two countries in these conditions. The Indian limitations were once again exposed, rather cruelly.

South Africa romped home 4-0 in the MTN series. The verdict could have been 5-0 had not the first game at the Wanderers been washed out.

For the first time in the series, the Indian pacemen bowled in the second half of the contest. They were found wanting in the day game as the moisture had dried out by the afternoon. Earlier, the Indian batsmen, with the exception of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, allowed the South African pacemen to call the shots with some ultra defensive batting.

The Indians made just over 20 in 15 overs. The South Africans were close to a hundred after 90 balls. Even after making some allowance for the easing up of the pitch, the difference in the crucial first phase was too glaring.

Shaun Pollock, accurate and wily, pegged India back at the beginning, as he has done throughout the series. The Indians could not quite pick which way the ball would move.

Pollock has burned calories during the off-season and is appearing fitter, leaner and hungrier. He has also added a yard of pace from last season, bowling at around 130 kmph. He is 33, has younger, faster bowlers breathing down his neck, but still is a key component of the South African attack.

He strangulates the batsmen with his precision, and consumes them with his variations. Here, Pollock conceded just 17 runs in 10 overs and snared Virender Sehwag and V. V. S. Laxman outside the off-stump. Man of the Series he certainly was.

That he was chosen as the Man of the Match ahead of the attacking Abraham de Villiers also underlined the fact that it was his first spell that swung the contest, decisively, in South Africa's favour.

Makhaya Ntini bowled with aggression and fire to maintain pressure, Andre Nel once again got the ball to climb awkwardly, and Jacques Kallis hit the deck, like he always does.

"The bowlers were fantastic. They hit the right areas," said a delighted Graeme Smith, whose decision to field was spot on.

India coach Greg Chappell indicated his helplessness about the batsmen not being able to adapt. "They have to find a solution to the conditions themselves. No one else can do it for them. We have not batted well. The confidence is low. That is the bottom line."

The Indians had two objectives — bat through the 50 overs and put up a competitive total. As Chappell conceded, the side achieved only one of its goals. The innings, finally, lasted 50 overs but there were not enough runs on the board.

South Africa made major gains at the impressive SuperSport Park. Even a dead rubber game can throw up positives.

For a start, Smith regained form. The skipper had been in the line of fire after just one run in the three earlier games. His confrontation with selection chief Haroon Lorgat before the toss at the Wanderers did not help matters either.

There were already whispers of Smith being replaced as skipper ahead of the World Cup. There were suggestions that he should be dropped on performance.

It was astonishing that a captain, whose team led 3-0, should come under so much criticism. But then, Smith is a popular captain who speaks his mind. His men rallied behind him.

The fluent Abraham de Villiers' elevation to the opening slot, and the sheer confidence with which he stroked the ball, rubbed off on Smith. The openers sent the fielders on a leather hunt.

De Villiers' footwork was of a high order as he dismissed the pacemen ruthlessly. He blazed boundaries through the covers, found the on-side gaps with ease.

Given his natural ability to strike the ball, and his sense of timing, De Villiers has been an underachiever in limited overs cricket. He is the kind of batsman who can unsettle the bowlers, disrupt their rhythm. He did just that at Centurion, taking the in-form Zaheer Khan and creaming him through the gaps. His batsmanship also has that unmistakable hint of arrogance. He walked down the pitch and sent Irfan Pathan over mid-wicket for a six and at the end De Villiers was just eight short of a century.

Smith grew in confidence. He had worked on his methods and his backlift was straighter. The left-hander is an imposing batsman, and his punishing 79 showed how destructive he could be.

He struck Pathan and Zaheer for sixes over covers, drove and pulled powerfully. Smith and De Villiers are an interesting left-right combination. At the Centurion they settled the issue. Earlier, Sachin Tendulkar made a laborious half-century. Dinesh Mongia also consumed too much time for his 41. Had not Robin Peterson sent down some ordinary left-arm spin, the Indian run-rate would have been slower.

M.S. Dhoni showed much spunk during his busy 44; he was also verbally grilled by Nel during his effort.

The South African catching was brilliant. Even the big fast men were flinging themselves in the outfield to pull off spectacular catches.

There was a marked difference in the levels of commitment of the two sides. No wonder the Indian supporters were an angry lot. One of them entered the Indian dressing room illegally. He was, rightly, arrested.

THE SCORES

Fifth ODI, SuperSport Park, Centurion, December 3, 2006. South Africa won by nine wickets.

India: V. Sehwag c Boucher b Pollock 11; S. Tendulkar c de Villiers b Kemp 55; V. V. S. Laxman c Smith b Pollock 0; D. Mongia b Kemp 41; M. S. Dhoni c Nel b Ntini 44; D. Karthik c Boucher b Nel 11; I. Pathan b Kallis 7; Harbhajan Singh c Pollock b Ntini 1; Zaheer Khan (not out) 16; A. Kumble b Ntini 1; Extras (lb-5, w-8) 13. Total (for nine wkts. in 50 overs) 200.

Fall of wkts: 1-18, 2-18, 3-103, 4-127, 5-154, 6-173, 7-183, 8-183, 9-200.

South Africa bowling: Pollock 10-4-17-2; Ntini 10-1-32-3; Kallis 10-1-56-1; Nel 10-1-34-1; Peterson 5-0-33-0; Kemp 5-0-23-2.

South Africa: G. Smith c Karthik b Harbhajan 79; A. B. de Villiers (not out) 92; S. Pollock (not out) 16; Extras (lb-4, w-5, nb-5) 14. Total (for one wkt. in 31.2 overs) 201.

Fall of wkt: 173.

India bowling: Zaheer 7-1-46-0; Sreesanth 3.2-0-31-0; Pathan 6-0-48-0; Harbhajan 8-0-39-1; Kumble 7-0-33-0.