Beaten in under four days (with an entire day lost to rain) by South Africa in the first Test, Virat Kohli and Co. will be licking their wounds, wondering at what might have been. Frankly, there’s a lot to be remorseful about.

A splendid opportunity to win the match and go 1-0 up in the series was squandered. It is only seldom that South Africans are caught on the back-foot in home conditions, and India had their chances. Quite a few in fact.

For instance, South Africa’s first innings score of 286 was meagre. Faf du Plessis would have been hoping for around 400 after winning the toss, but the innings barely sputtered past the 250 mark.

Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s excellent opening spell, complemented by the good work by other bowlers, sparked the hope of India getting a vital first innings lead. But that was not to be, as India’s top order caved in.

Hardik Pandya’s derring-do ensured that his team remained alive. He played a terrific counter-attacking knock, among the best I’ve seen, which inspired the Indian bowlers to bowl at their best in the second innings.

Sadly, this was lost on the batsmen again. The circumstances were daunting, but 208 looked gettable, more so since South Africa were without the injured Dale Steyn. In the event, the surrender was disappointingly abject.

Batting wasn’t easy and bowlers were dominant because of the pitch, that afforded appreciable bounce and seam movement, and weather conditions, that facilitated late swing. 

Morne Morkel blew like a typhoon in the second innings, Vernon Philander was spitting fire even at 125-128 kmph, making the ball jag in or away alarmingly, while young Kagiso Rabada bowled a testing three-quarter length at great pace consistently.

 Not that the Indian bowlers were overshadowed. The high skill quotient in the attack was amply and delightfully evident. Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah and Pandya matched the South African quickies blow for blow, and brought India back into the match when all looked lost. 

It is in such conditions and circumstances, however, that contributions from batsmen become even more crucial. When batting is so hazardous, courage, natural flair and a strong survival instinct can make the critical difference.

India’s batsmen flopped badly in these aspects. A cursory look at the contribution of the top five vis-à-vis the last six is telling evidence of which faction needs to improve dramatically for the team to stay competitive in the series.

The most runs were scored by Hardik Pandya, batting at No.7. The second most by No.6, R. Ashwin. The most deliveries played and third highest runs scored were by Bhuvaneshwar Kumar— who bats at No.9. The top five specialist batsmen looked hopelessly cast in this script. 

Two high-decibel arguments emerged as India’s top order floundered. One, that the playing XI should have included six specialist batsmen, and second, Ajinkya Rahane should have been preferred to Rohit Sharma. Both these pander to wisdom in hindsight.

Rahane’s overseas record is impressive. But his form leading into the series was iffy while Sharma was on a roll. It was a tough 50-50 call and the team management plumped for current form, which was not entirely illogical, even though the move bombed.

Where playing only five specialist batsmen is concerned, this tactic enhances prospects of winning. Getting 20 wickets overseas with only four bowlers is a time-tested but failed strategy.

Now that India had the fast-bowling arsenal, there was good reason to be aggressive rather than defensive. Playing five bowlers was a risk well worth taking, as the struggle of South African batsmen—barring the genius of A.B. de Villiers—showed.

Essentially, it was the failure of India’s batsmen to give the bowlers a reasonable chance to win the match. This will be a recurring challenge through this year when the team plays major series overseas, including in England and Australia.

Meanwhile, all is not lost in South Africa. The first match was competitive for the large part. This can still be a cracker of a series. But success won’t come on a platter, floating on hope and hype. Hard work lies ahead.

The Indian team—particularly the batsmen—will have to dig deep and come up with worthy performances to prove that the No.1 ranking in Tests is for real, not a chimera.

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

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