India’s defeat in the second Test against South Africa last month was not just a minor blip that marred an otherwise fine year; hidden in that were some inherent issues which will rankle both selectors and players—and still need to be addressed.

After a truly fine performance in the riveting first Test at Johannesburg, it was expected that India would come through with honours even—if not actually push for a win—in the series. In the event, the crushing 10-wicket defeat was not only deeply disappointing, but revived lingering scepticism about just how good the team really is.

The year gone by had seen a major turnaround by India. Beaten by England at home in late 2012, skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni had not only managed to save his captaincy, but inspired what seemed like a swift resurgence to eminence. By mid-2013, India were back as the No.1 side in One Day Internationals (ODIs) and No.2 in Tests.

The Australians had been whitewashed 4-0 in Tests, the International Cricket Council (ICC) Champions Trophy had been won in England. Approaching the end of the year, the West Indies had been thrashed roundly in Tests and ODIs. Before that, the Australians were overpowered in a thrilling ODI series too. Before departing for South Africa, India had won every rubber they had played in the year.

The retirements of Rahul Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman and finally Sachin Tendulkar appeared to have been tackled without a great problem. Batsmen like Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma had either emerged or consolidated their places with strong performances.

Mohammed Shami has the potential to be a strike bowler of ability. Photo: Anesh Debiky/AFP
Mohammed Shami has the potential to be a strike bowler of ability. Photo: Anesh Debiky/AFP

The makeover of the team was complete. There was a flush of exciting young talent and there was depth of experience too with Dhoni himself, Khan, Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina around. What’s more, there was winning momentum too. Things couldn’t have looked rosier when the team left for South Africa.

For lovers of Test cricket, and several million still abound all over the world, this was a contest to be savoured: a title bout, to use boxing parlance, for the No.1 ranking, though spoiled somewhat by the estranged relations between the administrators of the two countries which had led to a truncated tour.

From an Indian point of view, therefore, dismay at the results is only natural. True, there was little time for the players to acclimatize, but that does not hold as an excuse beyond a stage. The thrashing in the ODIs punctured India’s gloat about being the best in the format; to sour the mood further, the Test at Durban was surrendered by 10 wickets in a miserable batting performance on the last day.

I won’t dwell on the ODIs here because the format can produce topsy-turvy results—and India have done well overseas in this format quite regularly. It is the Test series that was more important, and hence the defeat more irksome.

True, statistical analyses will suggest that India actually enjoyed the upper hand in more sessions than South Africa in the two Tests. But as Mark Twain has reminded us, statistics can be worse than damned lies. In cricket, results are determined by which team plays the crucial sessions better.

In Johannesburg, South Africa’s batting withstood the psychological pressure of scoring in excess of 450 in the fourth innings; at Durban, their bowlers subjected India to the similar pressure of playing out a long period and the Indian batting crumbled. An opportunity to win a Test series in South Africa for the first time and create history was lost.

I wouldn’t paint a very bleak picture because there are some positives to take away from the tour. Pujara and Kohli not only reiterated their calibre but are perhaps the best young batsmen in the world. Ajinkya Rahane, after a frustrating time on the bench, seized his chances with both hands while Murali Vijay enhanced his claims as the main opener.

In the bowling, Shami has shown the potential to become a strike bowler of ability. Even Ishant Sharma in spells looked lethal enough to suggest that he might still be a match-winner, though he can’t take make taking wickets a part-time vocation. Jadeja’s marathon spell and six wickets at Durban make him a tireless performer and a quick learner.

Most others disappointed; Dhawan, Rohit and Ashwin notably, but even Dhoni as a batsman when playing outside the subcontinent. Their poor form and application hurt India badly, more so in the last Test when the need was for at least four-five batsmen to play out a long period.

Playing overseas is a challenge for most teams, as England’s rout in the ongoing Ashes suggests too. One could rationalize India’s failure on this tour using that yardstick, but that is hackneyed, regressive thinking which offers minor consolation but not victories.

The best teams adapt quickly to different conditions and do well. India had an opportunity to prove a point in South Africa and muffed it. In the next 12 months they will play several series overseas. If the lessons from this tour haven’t been learnt, it will not only diminish the team’s ranking but also its prestige.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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