One session was all it took for South Africa to wipe out India’s remaining seven wickets on the final day as the hosts completed a 135-run win in the second Test at Centurion to clinch the three-match series.
On a pitch which had Morne Morkel convinced he was bowling in the subcontinent, India’s much vaunted batting card once again collapsed like a house of cards to leave one wondering what the fuss was all about in the first place.
After four innings in South Africa, India have crossed the 200-run mark only once, in the first innings at Centurion. Their scorecards in the series so far read: 130, 135, 258 and 141, a dismal run for a side which has established itself as top-ranked Test outfit over the past 18 months.
Bar two standout individual knocks in Hardik Pandya’s 93 in the first Test and Virat Kohli’s 153 at Centurion, India’s batting has been shambolic to say the least with none of the other batsmen putting together any innings of note.
If the batting performance by the Indians looks grim right now, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that the tourists could have very well folded for a 100 odd in all four of their innings so far if not for the two individual heroics.
Kohli and India mentioned that they were not looking to prove a point as they embarked on their first of many tough trials to come overseas in 2018. However, despite what was said in public, there is no doubt that improving their overseas results was the biggest priority for the Indians having established themselves as the indisputable top dogs in Test cricket following a period of sustained domination at home.
Within two Tests, the South Africans have exposed all the deficiencies in the techniques of the Indian batsmen. While there is a fine line between defensive and attacking batting, the Indians have been caught in the middle with nowhere to hide. When they have tried to dig in, they have only crumbled after a brief resistance without making any indents in the scorecard while they have perished more often than nought while attempting to attack their way out of trouble.
Without any tour matches to prepare themselves for such an important series, India’s batsmen who were roared like tigers back home have been more likes foxes caught in the headlights in South Africa.
More than their shortcomings with technique, it has been the lack of discipline which has done India in so far. In the defeat at Centurion, the visitors lost the all important wickets of Cheteshwar Pujara and Pandya to needless run-outs in the first innings. Their second innings was no better with Pujara succumbing once again in similar fashion to become the first Indian to be run-out twice in the same Test.
India’s batsmen have simply failed to put enough of a premium on their wickets in the tour and have subsequently paid the price in a game of small margins.
Then there is their fielding where they have failed to latch on to their catches at crucial junctures of the game. Parthiv Patel was in the spotlight at Centurion where he dropped a sitter before failing to even attempt to grab a knick by Dean Elgar in the second that left Kohli and the others scratching their heads in disbelief.
While South Africa have themselves been guilty of throwing away wickets to cheap run-outs, they have been nothing short of exemplary on the field, especially with their catching.
India’s bowling has been their only saving grace on the tour so far and even there they have fallen some way short of their South African counterparts. While they have picked up 20 wickets in both Tests, they have allowed the hosts to escape from a position of peril in both matches.
Questionable selections by Kohli have been the hot topic of debate in the series, India’s woes are many and it is difficult to point the blame at a single department. Having failed their very first overseas acid Test now, the warning signs are already looming for the tours of England and Australia to come later this year.
With the norm of failures abroad continuing, it will be difficult for Kohli’s India to stake their claim as a truly great Test side. They still have one Test to salvage some pride but for now, they are only strengthening the notion of India being tigers at home but duds overseas.
When reports emerged last week that it was Bhuvneshwar Kumar who would have made way for Ishant Sharma in the opening Test against South Africa, it seemed a little far-fetched. And so it happened, Ishant’s slight niggle meant the call did not have to be made as Bhuvneshwar produced a sublime display of seam bowling.
That Bhuvneshwar does not seem to be high in the pecking order of India’s pace battery was confirmed on Saturday as Virat Kohli dropped the 27-year-old to make way for Ishant in the playing XI for the second Test at Centurion.
Jasprit Bumrah, who had made his debut at Newlands, retained his place along with Mohammed Shami. With the pitch at SuperSport Park being among the bouncier tracks in South Africa, Ishant’s inclusion was very well warranted.
What was not warranted though was dropping a pacer who has come on leaps and bounds in the last year or so. While Bhuvenshwar’s ability to swing the ball both ways with the red-ball has never been in doubt since his introduction to international cricket, it has always been his lack of extra pace which has set him back.
Lately however, Bhuvneshwar has worked hard on his speed and has been regularly clocking the late 130s km/h and early 140s. His beautiful seam movement has become all the more potent with the increase in pace.
While he did not have an extended run in the Test side in 2017 as India dominated at home, his limited-overs form is a testament to his unwavering accuracy and consistency. He was India’s best bowler in a dismal tour of England in 2014. Perhaps the only blot on his overseas record is his performance in the Sydney Test against Australia in 2015 where he picked up just one wicket, giving away 168 runs in the match.
With India choosing to stimulate conditions in South Africa during its last Test series against Sri Lanka at home, Bhuvneshwar was nearly unplayable at Eden Gardens as he picked up four wickets in each innings.
He continued that showing in Cape Town with a six-wicket haul where he ran through South Africa’s top-order on the opening day. Therefore, to learn that he was second choice on a track tailor-made for his wobbly seamers, does not reflect well for Kohli’s selection methods.
Bumrah, who leaked runs in the first innings at Newlands before coming back strongly in the second, was expensive once again on Saturday. So was Mohammed Shami, who looked down on pace once again. While Ishant toiled hard, India’s other pacers failed to maintain the pressure as they allowed South Africa’s batsmen to get away.
Shami bowled only 11 overs through the day and had to leave the field for a brief while as he struggled with his rhythm. Bhuvneshwar’s ability to keep things tight would have been a greater asset for Kohli at Centurion despite the lack of lateral movement off the pitch. He has also been handy with the bat for India lower down the order and the 127 deliveries he faced in total at Newlands was the most for any Indian batsmen in the 72-run defeat.
Kohli continues to make brave calls in his team selection but his dropping of Bhuvneshwar at Centurion reeks of a lack in confidence in the seamer’s abilities despite his consistent performances.
Bhuvneshwar had arguably been India’s most in-form bowler heading into the second Test and his place in the side should have been a given. More importantly, the fact that he would not have played in Newlands but for fate, shows that the seamer does not rank high in Kohli’s books.
The Newlands Test defeat to South Africa was the 33rd match for Virat Kohli as skipper of the Indian team.
Since taking over the reins in 2014, his tenure has been one of the most successful for India with a win percentage of over 60.
What is also interesting is that at no point during his time as skipper have India played the same XI in successive Tests. One would think that the No.1 team in the five-day format would have a settled line-up but that has not been the case.
Kohli and the team management have a horses for courses policy. Current form counts for a lot in the skipper’s books and it is for this reason India picked Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan instead of Ajinkya Rahane and KL Rahul at Newlands.
According to Kohli, Dhawan was preferred also to maintain the left hand-right hand combination while Sharma’s current form –an ODI double ton and a T20 century at home against Sri Lanka – saw him get the nod ahead of Rahane who is one of India’s most consistent batsman overseas.
While there is no denying that Rahane struggled at home against Sri Lanka where he could not buy a run to save his life, the fact is his overseas average (53.44) is more than double of Sharma’s 25.11.
While Rahane has been a crucial part of the side during their rise to the top of the ICC rankings, Sharma has flittered in and out of the side, finding favour in home conditions.
Sharma had a terrific last year in the limited-overs format but his temperament and style have always been ill-suited for the red-ball game. Plundering runs against a struggling Sri Lankan team at home should never have been used as a yardstick for picking him over Rahane, who made his name after scoring centuries in England, Australia and New Zealand.
In the openers’ carousel for India, it was Rahul who lost out to Dhawan at Cape Town.
Dhawan’s strong form in 2017 – where he scored two Test and three ODI tons – was also the reason behind him winning a place over a man who scored seven consecutive 50s in 2017.
Dhawan averages slightly more overseas (43.7) than at home (40.2) but three of his five away Test tons have come against Sri Lanka.
His weakness against the short-ball is no secret and it did not come as a surprise when the left-hander succumbed twice to the bouncer at Newlands.
Rahul’s technique seems to be more suited for South African conditions and although Dhawan does possess the ability to destroy a bowling attack, it is hard to see him do it against the likes of Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel in their own backyard.
Kohli has never been shy of making bold selections, many of which have worked, but in this gruelling tour of South Africa where the techniques of India’s batsmen are being tested to the hilt, he may need to go old school.
India’s batting-card was as sixes and sevens against the seaming ball at Newlands and it took a gem of a counter-attacking innings from Hardik Pandya to give it some degree of respectability.
There will be further minefields laid out for the visitors in the remaining two Tests and it is important that they bring out their sharpest weapons to the fight.
Rahul and Rahane might just be what the Indian team need.