Where India lost the plot in South Africa | Cricket

The final frontier, then, remains un-breached. India’s 30-year wait to win a Test series in South Africa, the only cricketing nation where they have not done so, just got longer. This was as good an opportunity as it gets to tick that box against a South Africa team in transition. 1-0 up at Centurion, India had the momentum before the series went south. Where did it go wrong?

Here are five possible reasons.

Kohli vs BCCI

As far as terrible build-ups go, India have been getting the wrong end of the deal now for two marquee series—the T20 World Cup and the South Africa tour. Virat Kohli announcing ahead of the T20 World Cup that he won’t be T20I captain after the tournament was possibly the worst way to prepare for it. The captaincy was about to be split, but BCCI’s prolonged silence didn’t clear the air. Then popped a BCCI email announcing the Test squad for South Africa with a one-line postscript mentioning Rohit Sharma had taken over as ODI captain. Then came that explosive pre-departure press conference where Kohli said his resignation was received well, directly disputing BCCI president Sourav Ganguly’s claims that Kohli was asked to reconsider. Taken aback, BCCI went into a huddle as Ganguly promised Kohli’s comments will be dealt with, all in the backdrop of the squad flying out to a nation in search of a historic series win.

Chief of selectors Chetan Sharma swung into action to back BCCI, effectively saying that Kohli was lying. Chief coach Rahul Dravid said the “outside noise” hadn’t affected preparations but there is no denying that this has all the makings of a pretty negative environment with the power to distract.

This was possibly the strongest India team to tour South Africa, who were dealing with the loss of Anrich Nortje and the retirements of Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis, AB de Villiers, and midway through the series, Quinton de Kock. Then there was Kohli missing the second Test–he said it was a back spasm, but it only triggered more speculation.

The missing link(s) in India’s batting

Cheteshwar Pujara scored 0, 16, 3, 53, 43 and 9 this series. Ajinkya Rahane scored 48, 20, 0, 58, 9 and 1. Both were involved in two fifty-plus partnerships with other batters in this series, but together they came good for just one proper partnership—111 runs during the second innings in the second Test. That isn’t a good enough conversion rate for a middle-order heavily relying on these two, especially when the lower order was being cleaned up so easily. First innings at The Wanderers, Pujara and Rahane were dismissed in the same over with India on 49. India were shot out for 202.

At Newlands, Pujara added 62 with Kohli but Rahane couldn’t follow it up with a second act. From 95/2, India were 116/4 in no time. In the second innings, Pujara and Rahane were dismissed in consecutive overs, leaving India tottering on 58/4. Seven times now, Pujara has failed to add to his overnight tally. Rahane has looked equally vulnerable, particularly against the rising ball.

Tosses won, battles lost

Despite having a more rounded and experienced fast bowling line-up, India chose to bat first in each of the three Tests. Openers KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal wrested the initiative at Centurion with their 117-run partnership, but the top-order batting has been generally scratchy for some time now. With Kohli, Pujara and Rahane seeking big runs, the decision to bat first was baffling on many counts. South Africa not only bowled with purpose but also worked out shorter lengths with the higher release points of their taller bowlers, backing them with short-leg fielders.

Barring Kohli to some extent, all India’s top-order batters were pestered by the trampoline bounce. The other fallout of the decision to bat first was India never allowed their fast bowlers to set the tempo of any Test, asking them instead to defend paltry scores at Wanderers and Newlands. The pressure showed. Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami bowled too short in Johannesburg as Mohammed Siraj was injured. In the third Test, Umesh Yadav—who came in place of Siraj—turned out to be the first change bowler you want to avoid in a tight game as he conceded boundaries almost every over in the second innings.

Emotions getting the better of India

India didn’t bat well and then asked their fast bowlers to clean up their mess. Bad days happen to anyone, even on a consistent basis (Look at England in Australia, for example). But India possibly made the last Test, the decider, too personal by getting embroiled in a one-way altercation with the broadcasters over a DRS call gone wrong. Ashwin’s ball hit the knee roll of Dean Elgar on Day 3 and replays showed the ball going over the stumps.

Everyone involved, including on-field umpire Marais Erasmus, was taken aback by the DRS verdict but Kohli possibly took it too far by walking up to the stump microphone and saying, “Focus on your team while they shine the ball. Not just the opposition. Trying to catch people all the time,” referring to the 2018 Test where SuperSport had caught Australia’s Cameron Bancroft hiding a sandpaper strip in his pants. Rahul then chirped in, “It’s the whole country against 11 guys” before Ashwin loudly said “You should find better ways to win, SuperSport (the official broadcasters).”

No technology is fool proof and DRS isn’t any different, but to blame SuperSport for the decision when all they do is pass on the feed from HawkEye was a bit rich. India’s frustration at not being able to get breakthroughs was evident in that outburst.

South Africa seize key moments

You have to hand it to South Africa for winning a series that they began without Anrich Nortje and lost Quinton de Kock barely hours after India inflicted a shocking defeat at Centurion, their bastion for many years. Their fast bowlers resorted to shorter lengths and the catching was phenomenal, especially at Newlands where Keegan Petersen and Dean Elgar held on to Pujara’s and Rahane’s edges brilliantly.

But it was South Africa’s batters who carved this victory. Elgar was unbeaten on 96 in the second Test, having worn down India’s relentless bowling, getting bruised in the process. Keegan Petersen was the star of the third Test, battling out a tricky morning session with a crafty 82 that put South Africa in the driver’s seat. Equally precious were the chunky knocks from Rassie Van der Dussen and Temba Bavuma in both chases at junctures where India desperately needed wickets. No one scored a hundred but South Africa still came through.

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