The Indians mess it up, yet again

The South African team which won the Castle Test series.-PICS: AP

India would, perhaps, never get such an opportunity for a Test series win in South Africa. The five-wicket setback in the decider in Cape Town might leave behind deep psychological scars, writes S. Dinakar.

The chance to make history appeared and disappeared much like the clouds over a city of great scenic beauty. The Indians messed up big time at Newlands.

India would, perhaps, never get such an opportunity for a Test series triumph in South Africa. The five-wicket setback in the decider in Cape Town might leave behind deep psychological scars.

Eventually, South Africa was a deserving 2-1 winner in the Castle Test series. The host played the key moments of the series better.

This was a Test where almost everything pointed towards an Indian win. Rahul Dravid won a crucial toss. The dry pitch offered turn from day one. Then, the Indians were provided a wonderful start by Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthik. Their 153-run association set the stage for the later batsmen.

The bright sunny weather on the first four days indicated the cracks on the surface could widen. South Africa would bat last on a wearing pitch. What happened then?

Debutant spinner Paul Harris (left), celebrates with his team-mates after dismissing Sachin Tendulkar.-

A lot went wrong for India. When the side had the opportunity of batting South Africa out of the contest, it lost the last five wickets for 19 runs on the second day. This opened up the match. South Africa was now in the frame.

For India, much depended on Anil Kumble. On this pitch, he was the trumpcard. Kumble, probably trying too hard, was pushing the ball through quicker. He needed to be slower through the air for the ball to grip the surface.

The cloud cover on the final day might have prevented the pitch from breaking up. Yet, this was one of those rare occasions when Kumble could not deliver.

South Africa's debutant left-arm spinner Paul Harris got more bite. The finger spinners, who can give the ball a greater rip, seemed to be more suited for this surface.

India had left out Harbhajan Singh, opting for the third paceman. Rahul Dravid's argument that Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan had bowled a lot of overs in the series and required some cover in the Test was not without logic. However, the third paceman Munaf Patel hardly bowled in the second innings and appeared less than fully fit in the arena.

In hindsight, Harbhajan could have provided Kumble with the support he needed. They have bowled in tandem, and with contrasting styles. The pressure is created from both ends.

Wasim Jaffer... patient hundred on the first day of the Test.-

There was a very visible rough outside the right-hander's leg-stump. Kumble zeroed in on it from round the wicket. But the right-handed batsmen were able to use their pads effectively.

And the left-handed Graeme Smith switched to an attacking mode, while coping with Kumble, whipping, sweeping and swiping the ball spinning into him from the rough.

Smith's efforts — he missed a century by just six runs in the first — in both the innings were critical. Harbhajan could have been more effective against the left-hander. He might also have used left-arm paceman Zaheer Khan's footmarks while operating at the right-handers.

The ploy to send Virender Sehwag as an opener in the second innings backfired. Sehwag had barely clung on to his place in the XI; his past exploits with the willow got him a place in the middle-order, and the ability to send down off-spin also worked in his favour.

He had made a useful 40 in the first innings, but got out when he had the bowling at his mercy. Then, the team-management turned over-ambitious with a still out-of-form batsman. Sehwag, despite his low confidence levels, had played some firm strokes in the first innings. The new ball was a different ball-game altogether for him. Sehwag departed early and the South Africans redoubled their efforts.

India, which had achieved a hard-earned 41-run lead, still had the chance to set South Africa a target of around 300. It was shockingly bundled out for 169 on the fourth day, on a pitch not offering much to the pacemen.

Sourav Ganguly, who had shown both flair and substance in the first innings, batted well with Dravid in the second innings as well before, unwisely, opening the face of his blade.

He had been rushed in to bat at No. 4 after India lost two early wickets since five more minutes remained before Sachin Tendulkar — he had been off the field for 18 minutes on day three — could come in to bat. The umpires communicated this to the Indian camp, only a delivery before the second wicket fell, but the team-management should have been aware of the rules.

Graeme Smith came good with the bat in both the innings.-

India completely lost the plot after Ganguly's dismissal. Dravid and Tendulkar crawled after lunch and South Africa was able to apply pressure. Pollock choked the flow of runs from one end with seam and reverse swing. Harris had the two batsmen in knots, spinning the ball from the rough from over-the-wicket.

Both Dravid and Tendulkar did not use the crease particularly well. Said national selection panel chief Dilip Vengsarkar, "They should have gone on to the back-foot and worked the ball to the on-side for singles. They could have rotated the strike. The bowler would have been forced to change his line."

There was a huge momentum shift during this phase of the game. South Africa never looked back.

Karthik's enterprise showed up the inadequacies of the earlier efforts. He was eventually left high and dry.

The Indian running between the wickets — V. V. S. Laxman and Zaheer were run-out victims — was seen in poor light. The ground fielding, particularly by some of the seniors, was below par.

"Some guys will be under pressure," said India coach Greg Chappell later. He added the wicket did not deteriorate enough in the later stages. Vengsarkar did not agree with the view. "What more do you need from the wicket? Do you need to dig a hole?" he asked.

The South Africans were able to build partnerships with left-right combinations — Smith with Amla (first) and Pollock (second), and Prince with Kallis in both innings. The Indians were not able to change their line of attack adequately.

The promotion of Pollock to the No. 4 slot in the second innings was based on sound reasoning, unlike the Indian strategy on Sehwag on day four. The South Africans, despite a 185-minute rain interruption on the final day, managed the chase well. Skipper Smith showed the way.

There were, however, some gains for India. Unlike at Kingsmead, Jaffer consolidated on a start in the first innings. While he was solid in defence, Jaffer drove and flicked fluently. It must be mentioned that the nature of the surface was his ally here. He misjudged the natural angle of a Ntini lifter early on in the second innings. Vengsarkar would later say, "He needs to be more consistent."

But Jaffer's first innings partnership with Karthik did provide India a platform to push for victory. Their senior colleagues frittered away the advantage.

Karthik has both technique and heart. He showed the bat's maker's name to the pacemen, defending and attacking correctly with precise footwork. In the second innings, when he came down the order, Karthik innovated and created without appearing to take chances. His wicket-keeping was smart throughout.

A rejuvenated Zaheer Khan operated well in the second innings, moving the ball and hitting the bat hard.

However, India did not fire collectively. There are lessons to be learnt from the Newlands debacle.