Even the eventual margin of defeat at Newlands mocked India. A decade ago, when Anil Kumble’s side, 2-0 down to Ricky Ponting’s rampant Australian team, clinched victory in Perth, it was by an identical margin – 72 runs. That too was against a four-man pace attack, at a venue where touring sides rarely experienced anything other than pain and humiliation.
Make no mistake, India had a chance to make history in Cape Town, especially once their bowlers combined to deliver pretty much the perfect session. No team other than Australia has won at Newlands since South Africa were readmitted to the fold in 1991-92, and those involved in the batting debacle will carry these scars for a long time. This match will be this generation’s Barbados 1997, any mention of which still makes Sachin Tendulkar wince.
“It hurts, and it should hurt,” said Virat Kohli, who was disarmingly candid in explaining everything from the batting meltdown to the selections that had caused such a buzz on the first morning. India didn’t lose because of the personnel they chose. They fell short because key players couldn’t do what was expected of them.
Murali Vijay, whose solidity at the top underpinned a Test victory at Lord’s and so nearly helped Kohli pull off an improbable chase in Adelaide, failed both times. Cheteshwar Pujara couldn’t capitalize on a start in the first innings. Both fell to poor shots at the first time of asking. Wriddhiman Saha was excellent with the gloves but did nothing with the bat. And Kohli himself was beautifully set up in the second innings after having made fluent progress to 28.
If we’re being brutally honest, the epic Test that both captains spoke of would never have been but for Hardik Pandya’s fortune-laced 93. Instead of the deficit of 150, the momentum shift he brought about gave the bowlers something to work with. And the inexperienced pace quartet – only Mohammed Shami had played a Test in South Africa before – did wonderfully well to exploit helpful conditions.
Kohli spoke of partnerships, and of losing wickets in clumps at the wrong times. Again, he was right. If you look at India’s most famous victories away from home, they have invariably been set up by those prepared to dig a trench and stay there. It was Rahul Dravid and Sanjay Bangar, the current batting coach, at Headingley in 2002. It was Dravid and Tendulkar in Perth, VVS Laxman in Durban (2010) and Sourav Ganguly and Laxman at the Wanderers in 2006.
Then, there are the partnerships that fly below the radar, the scores that don’t immediately jump out at you from the page. The Wanderers win would not have been possible without Dravid (32) and Tendulkar (44) adding 69 for the third wicket in 24.5 overs. Against Dale Steyn, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel, with Jacques Kallis providing the back-up, they kept out everything on a pitch that was playing all kinds of tricks.
By the time the two were separated, the ball was old enough for the other batsmen to take some liberties. They were beaten often enough, and edged quite a few, but both also had the nous to know which balls to leave and which ones to score off. In that sense, India definitely missed a trick with their batting order in the second innings.
It was absurd to send Saha and Pandya ahead of Ashwin. Ashwin has shown, at venues as far removed as Manchester, Sydney and Brisbane that he has the technique to match wits against quality fast bowling. If you are playing only five specialist batsmen, then it has to be Ashwin at No.6. The more deliveries he eats up, the more damage Pandya can potentially do against the older ball and tired bowlers.
The other theory that needs to be reassessed is the left-right combination at the top. That works well only if the partnership gets you runs. Neither of the two skittish innings Shikhar Dhawan played inspired any confidence. KL Rahul scored six half-centuries against Australia. Yes, they were on home turf, but almost all those runs came in challenging conditions where other batsmen struggled.
With this South African attack, the pressure is absolutely relentless. You’re not going to see off Vernon Philander or Kagiso Rabada, or Morne Morkel on his home ground in Centurion, with a couple of streaky fours. India’s best opening stands in South Africa came courtesy Wasim Jaffer and Dinesh Karthik, both right-hand batsmen.
Above all though, the team management would do well to stick to their guns. Channels have TRPs to get, newspapers need screaming headlines to catch the eye. Their perceptions are often a world removed from reality. A decade ago, after India had scraped a draw at Lord’s in the first Test of the series in England, an Indian journalist wrote a piece that said it was time to take a wrecking ball to the famed middle order.
Fortunately, no one of any consequence was listening. India won the next Test at Trent Bridge. The architects of the victory? Zaheer Khan and that same middle order. I know the idiot who wrote that story. I still see him in the mirror every morning.