RAJKOT woke up on Sunday morning anticipating two contests. One obviously pitting India and South Africa in a crucial third ODI at the Saurashtra Cricket Association (SCA) Stadium, and the other between Patidar agitation leader Hardik Patel and the local authorities. Patel’s expected attempts at creating a scene during the match as a part of their protest over reservation fell flat as the agitation leader was detained some five kilometres away from the stadium. As it turned out, so did the Indian team’s attempts at overcoming a stiff target against the South African bowling attack for the second time running in the series.
Though the match remained on an even keel for most parts, Morne Morkel made the real difference as he struck late in the day to dismantle a threatening partnership between MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli. The lanky pacer finished with a four-wicket haul that more or less ended India’s hopes of getting close to 271 as they well short by 18 runs and thus handed the Proteas a crucial 2-1 lead with two matches left.
Till the time Dhoni and Kohli were together, India were in with a real chance despite the required run-rate climbing at a rapid rate. The Indian captain had promoted himself to No.4, ahead of Ajinkya Rahane, and it was proving to be a masterstroke. Back at his favoured No.3 spot, Kohli seemed a lot more settled as he brought up his first half-century of the series. But with the South Africans not at all letting up, either with the ball or on the field, the Indian challenge began to falter as Dhoni and Kohli struggled to find the boundaries that were necessary to keep them within sight of the target.
Few batsmen in Indian cricket history have finished ODIs off with the same consistency and nonchalance as the duo have over the years, even if they have their own way of doing it. Batting together, which they haven’t done very often in run-chases, the two seemed keen on doing it their own way by pushing the match till the end overs before turning on the heat.
But the South Africans kept them honest by bowling short of length and tucking the two right-handers up. It meant that Dhoni and Kohli had to be content with looking for singles and twos, which too weren’t easy to come, as the boundaries dried up. In fact they went through a period of 10 overs where they didn’t manage a single boundary between them. It wasn’t like they weren’t trying as both Dhoni and Kohli charged down their crease to put pedal to metal. But they either kept finding the fielders or, like on one occasion, Dhoni’s wild swing only resulted in him losing grip of the bat with the ball missing his stumps.
Raina makes a duck
Dhoni finally fell to Morkel, fending against a short ball, after having smashed the previous delivery for four. He had made 47 off 61 and India now needed to score at 10-an-over in their last seven overs. Suresh Raina came and went, holing out to long-off off Imran Tahir’s bowling for zero. Then as Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane fell off successive Morkel deliveries, both caught by David Miller at deep mid-wicket while attempting cross-batted hoicks, India’s challenge was all but over.
The chase had started off on a much brighter note as Rohit Sharma led the charge once more. He kept finding the boundary against the new-ball, and cruised to 65 off 74 before once more giving a return catch to a South African spinner, JP Duminy this time around. When he left, India needed 158 in 27 overs, a target that should have been well within reach for the high-profile middle-order. But once more India’s chasing blues caught up with them, leaving them many questions to ponder over, right from Dhoni’s promotion to their continued faith in Raina.
South Africa’s batting innings had been built around a fluent century by Quinton de Kock, who continued his love affair with the Indian bowling, crossing three-figures against the same opposition for the fourth time in his still-nascent career.
Dhoni’s punt on bringing back Amit Mishra for Umesh Yadav did prove to be a fruitful change as the leg-spinner kept the leash on the South African middle-order, going only for 38 runs and getting rid of Hashim Amla once more.
And India did well in the death overs to pull the Proteas back after de Kock and Faf du Plessis had laid the platform for a 300+ total. But India’s inability to finish ODIs came to the fore again, leaving them with the difficult task of winning the remaining two ODIs in Chennai and Mumbai to clinch the series.