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By Suresh Menon
India falling at the last hurdle is not new – but we must not read too much into the one-day defeat in South Africa. It might even be a blessing in disguise if it enables everybody to keep his feet on the ground, and not go into the World Cup overconfident and complacent.
The fact remains, however, that India were not as good as the 2-3 margin suggests. South Africa’s tendency to choke – nearly as legendary as India’s tendency to get entangled in the final hurdle - helped India return home with a respectable score line. India had a readymade excuse anyway; they were not playing their best team, after all.
If you are looking for consolations in defeat, there were many. India did beat South Africa twice in a row. I remember how the public perception of the Indian team changed on the first tour of the country in 1992-93. After drawing the first two Tests, India were hammered 5-2 in the one-dayers, and suddenly became the butt of jokes. Even the pilot of the aircraft carrying the team had a word of advice for the team, as he hoped the Indians had learnt something from the South Africans on the trip, and would return better players!
Dhoni’s men took on South Africa on equal terms, and that was significant. When Yusuf Pathan was beginning to take the game away from the hosts in the final match, there was genuine panic in skipper Graeme Smith’s eyes, and the bowlers who had harassed the batsmen just an hour earlier seemed willing to wait for the batsman to get himself out.
“I know Yusuf, we played for the Rajasthan Royals, I know what he is capable of,” a relieved Smith said later.
Still, India’s batting continued to cause worry. The much-criticised selectors got this right for the World Cup – the dropping of Rohit Sharma. The manner in which Virat Kohli grabbed his chance with both hands now makes him a certainty for the starting XI. Kohli failed and India lost, and that is high praise for the youngster who will add muscle to the middle order even when the big guns return.
Dhoni was being sensible (and practical) when he said that the two warm up matches India play before the World Cup should iron out some problems. India play Australia and New Zealand, and that should help them get into the groove at home after a series in a country whose wickets bear no resemblance to any of ours.
The current national hero, Yusuf Pathan, is a strong lad with a big heart. In the public library that is international cricket, all the information about his game is now available on the Internet. Every team will be studying his technique, his approach and scouting for weaknesses to exploit. That is the nature of international sport. An obvious weakness against the short-pitched delivery could not be exploited even by two such gifted fast bowlers as Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel. Yusuf was willing to take blows on his body, and wait for the ball to pitch in ‘his area’. Not too many bowlers will be so obliging in the future. Yusuf’s heroics helped to hide the shortcomings in the batting of such as Suresh Raina and to some extent the skipper and Yuvraj Singh too.
The World Cup will be a different game altogether for India. There will be no deliveries threatening to knock off the batsman’s head or seaming around tentatively thrust bats. Victory tends to hide shortcomings. That is why India’s defeat in South Africa might have been a good thing.