Millions of Indian cricket fans were disheartened to see India succumb meekly to the accurate and hostile bowling of South Africa, as India lost the second Test at Centurion to hand the hosts an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-match series. There was always the hope that India would finally win a series in South Africa, which, unfortunately, never materialised. The Virat Kohli-led side, considered the best in the world, seemed to be of a different proposition. They looked like a well-oiled machine that had all parts running smoothly with enough replacements if required. The Indian side may not have had the desired time to get acclimatised, but the skill and talent that their batsmen showcased in 2017 had all of us believe that they have the ability to perform well overseas. Alas! That did not happen and so the famous English proverb comes to one’s mind: “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”
Two clear issues emerged from the series defeat for India, which the administration of Indian cricket should keep in mind for the subsequent overseas tours. One is the much-debated issue of lack of time for acclimatisation; the other important factor is to have a five-match series against top Test sides.
A three-match series gives the home side a clear advantage if they win the first Test. The atmosphere and conditions are known to them, whereas, a visiting side is still unsure of finding the right ‘ horses for courses.’ This is precisely what happened to India.
The Indian think tank, through watching the players perform in the nets and going by their immediate past performances, made the team selection. Sitting back and looking at it on the hindsight and criticising it is a simple task for the backbenchers. This is why the good sides in the past played a long four or five Test series. In 1971, England did not take the Indian side seriously and played a shortened series and low and behold they lost it.
The first two Tests, however, were exciting to watch. The wicket in the first match at the Wanderers in Cape Town had plenty of life and for a change the batsmen were made to work hard to get their runs. The second Test at the Centurion did not have the same lateral movement for the bowlers, but the pitch did have variable bounce, turn for the spinners and was ideal for a pace bowlers to cut the ball off the wicket. The bounce made it difficult for the batsmen to play the ball on the rise and so made stroke-play difficult.
The highlight for me was the batting of two modern day greats
— Virat Kohli’s 153 runs in the first innings of the second Test and AB de Villiers’ 80 in the second innings of the same match. Their footwork, wristy placements and classical stroke-play were truly remarkable and a treat to watch.
The difference, however, between the two sides were fielding, catching and the patience of the batsman to stay at the wicket. The South African skipper, Faf du Plessis, and their opener Dean Elgar showed grit and determination. They both did not look comfortable at the crease but they realised how important each run was for their side. India, unfortunately, had only Cheteshwar Pujara who could play this role and his run-outs in both innings of the second Test put India on the backfoot. The other player who could have done this task for India was Ajinkya Rahane, who was not a part of the playing eleven. This is where I felt that India missed a cue.
When one got to know that wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha was injured and would be replaced, one felt that Parthiv Patel. the replacement, would be made to open and Ajinkya Rahane would be brought in as an extra batsman in the middle-order. Parthiv has done well previously as an opener and would have been an ideal replacement for Shikhar Dhawan as he too is a left-handed batsman.
The other problem for India that still persists is fielding. The close-in catching is only one part of the problem. The most important part is to be able to place oneself in the correct position.
This can only be accomplished when a fielder is experienced and familiar with the position he is fielding in, whether in the slips or at short-leg. Every player is different, some like the ball to come at a higher height and so field closer, then there is the preference to one’s right side or left one and then the foremost ability to remain calm and confident when the ball comes towards one. All these attributes are honed, not by just taking catches during practice, but by making sure one fields at that position in every match he plays. This is where Indian fielding falters. Present day cricket needs specialisation in fielding positions as well. A good example was AB de Villiers, who fielded close at slips initially and then at deep square leg when South Africa was planning to get a wicket through a bouncer. The catch that took of Rohit Sharma was magnificent and that told the tale precisely. A plot was laid and Rohit fell hook, line and sinker for it.
Similarly, most of the Indian batsmen faced the same dilemma. Patience is a virtue and the fast pace of life today has made that redundant. The Indian cricketers’ mindset needs to change quickly.
Hopefully India will fight back in the next Test starting next week at the Wanderers, and I am still convinced that they will win. Thereafter, the five Test series would become a subject to ponder about.
(The author is a former India cricketer)