South Africa today showed the world that even men fielding on the fence can win you Test matches. Two out-of-the-world diving catches and one joint-fielding effort – all close to the boundary rope – ended the hype around the Virat Kohli-led and Ravi Shastri-coached new-age Indian team.
The Centurion result— India’s 135 runs loss before lunch on Day 5—showed that this mush-twirling, frequently sleeve-folding bunch of tough-talking boys aren’t quite prepared—or make it capable—of breaking new ground. When it comes to their cricket, they aren’t too different from the better-behaved and less-in-the-face teams from the past. All that has changed over the period of time are the sound bites at the post-defeat press conference. They have gone from apologetic to aggressive but the results abroad have remained the same. Maybe, they might even end up not as popular as that under-achieving golden generation.
The series loss to South Africa confirmed Indian cricket’s status quo. They remain the much-maligned poor-travellers. Catapulting Lungi Ngidi to a dream debut on his home ground with figures of 6-39, India’s batting once again looked brittle – though the demons were in the batter’s heads than in the pitch this time.
Despite record winning streaks at home, their World No.1 status; Indians would have to scratch their head, stare at their shoe-laces or turn around and leave when they are asked the awkward questions about their “away record”.
Though, Virat Kohli wasn’t to bat but still 287 weren’t impossible. The likes of Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Hardik Pandya, Parthiv Patel and Ravichandran Ashwin have leaped across bigger hurdles on cricket fields. Some wearing whites, others when in coloured clothing. Some internationally, some while playing domestic cricket. All on them at home, never abroad.
Today, they had a chance to change opinions, add to their legend and actually be that mythical aggressive cricket-with-intent that Kohli and Shastri keep talking about.
Cricket is about bowlers conspiring and forcing batsmen to make mistakes. However, today watching India’s early collapse—the day’s first 4 wickets falling for 38 runs—and the seven slow solo march pasts to the dressing room, it was very apparent that the reason of their dismissals weren’t mistakes, they were limitations.
Mistakes are mostly miscalculations that can be corrected. Limitations are much more chronic a problem. Indian cricketers are known to address their mistakes, but their limitations seem to have gone unattended. It starts with Pujara. This could have been his day. The sun was shining; the pitch was the kind you get on Day 2 at home. The best time to bat when the bowlers have left their biting teeth in the dressing room.
On Wednesday at Centurion, Vernon Philander’s away-going ball too could have been sent to third man by hanging the bat out and guiding. The sharp and fresh Kagiso Rabada too could have been milked for singles. Pujara was doing all of that. He has played the crisis man for his team too often in his career at venues across India – Rajkot, Mumbai, Kotla, Ranchi, Bangalore … it’s a long list. Even at Colombo. Today, he seemed to have things in control to play his first real match-winning innings away from the sub-continent.
What failed him was a much-neglected skill. For the second time in the Test, he was run out. Parthiv would play to backward point, where Lungi Ngidi would throw himself at the ball, hook it with his palm and pull it back just before he would cross the fence. AB de Villiers would pick the ball and throw to the keeper. Pujara, coming back for the third, would dive.
He would look at the umpire and smash his pads with the bat, it was something he was doing for the third time in this frustrating series. After endless replays, he would be declared out. It looked all too familiar. It was a very usual start to India’s final day in away Test matches. It’s been happening for years, though decades sums up the long-standing, deep-rooted problems better.
Meanwhile, Parthiv Patel would continue to drive, as if at Motera. He was playing the inspirational captain who just a season back had given Gujarat its first-ever Ranji Trophy by a back-to-the-wall century. Rabada would look bewildered when the tiny keeper would drive one past him. And then South Africa would change plans. They would plan the short-ball trick. It is tough to keep a count on the number of times this strategy has worked for India’s rivals.
So Rabada gets one short ball to spit at Patel, who goes for the pull. Morne Morkel takes the best catch of his career, running at least 15 meters, throwing his 6’5″ frame and holding the ball with both hands. Mistake while pulling results in mishitting the ball. Limitation while pulling means not able to keep the ball down.
Watch videos of Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers, from this very Test, to learn the art of playing a ‘safe’ pull shot. Closing the face of the bat by riding a rising ball and hitting it down requires a batting nuance that needs long hours of training.
Rohit Sharma too would play a perfect ‘Rohit Sharma’ innings—the ones that look great till the penultimate ball. He too was cutting, driving, defending and then he falls to, what else, a Rabada short-ball. Sharma tries the hook and AB de Villiers, at fine-leg, would dive forward to hold the ball. When you are so successful playing a format where edges fly over shortened boundary ropes, you start considering your mistakes as an attribute.
Over a period of time, this mistake can swell into a limitation. This would be the third decisive wicket of the day and every time the action was close to the boundary rope. Ngidi would mop up the Indian tail— Pandya, Ashwin, Shami and Bumrah to go with his top-order scalps Rahul and Kohli.
While India’s dismissals had certain staleness to them, South Africa was adding one-more dimension to their team. They were finding their match-winners from the so-far-unexplored remote areas of the field. Close-in fielders and wicket-keepers are the non-bowlers who historically changed games but here the men on the fence were in the thick of action.
While South Africa were finding new match-winners, India were losing their old ones too.